Travel agency leaves worthless air tickets

January 11, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Nearly three months ago, Elaine and Joseph Piskin of Randallstown bought tickets to Fort Lauderdale through Republic Air Travel, a Dallas-based travel agency that had been arranging low-cost charter flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Florida.

Last Wednesday, Mrs. Piskin, recovering from a broken ankle, called Republic hoping to postpone her Jan. 21 flight. No problem, she was told. The tickets, while nonrefundable, could be used for up to a year.

Unknown to Mrs. Piskin, however, the Dallas company that provided air service for Republic canceled its agreement with Republic that very day because it had failed to receive payments on time.

The charter flight service, Express One International Inc., said it would honor Republic-issued tickets only until Jan. 15. Meanwhile, Republic Travel has ceased operation.

And the Piskins' and thousands of others nationwide are holding useless tickets.

The Republic charter operation -- which advertised heavily in several metropolitan areas since last summer -- had booked flights through mid-June. Its flights from BWI to Florida started at $49, compared to the $99 lowest fares on several major, domestic airlines.

"I'm angry but not surprised that they went out out business at that price," said Mrs. Piskin, who paid $282 for two, round-trip tickets.

In November, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it was investigating Republic for illegally diverting "hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars" in advance ticket payments from customer refund accounts to cover its operating expenses.

Under federal regulations, money collected from charter customers must be placed in escrow accounts until the customers complete their trips. The accounts serve essentially as insurance policies for passengers if the flights are canceled.

"We don't know how much money they had in escrow accounts," Bill Mosely, a spokesman for the federal department, said yesterday.

"We are prosecuting the [civil] complaint by taking them before an administration law judge," he said. "But we have not been able to directly find out what they were doing on a case by case basis."

No date has been set for a hearing in the Republic case.

Complaints about Republic first surfaced when consumers complained to the Transportation Department that flights were canceled on short notice.

According to Mr. Mosely, passengers holding tickets for after Jan. 15 should make other travel arrangements. Federal officials, however, have told Express One that it is obligated to provide return air transportation to all persons who had purchased round-trip tickets from Republic and have completed the outbound portion on Express.

Express One, which was also named in the Transportation Department's November civil complaint, has agreed to settle charges that it had failed to make a reasonable attempt to ensure that Republic complied with federal regulations.

The Transportation Department's consumer affairs office can be reached at 202-366-2220.

It is advising customers to request a refund of the Republic ticket by writing to Republic's depository bank: National Bank of Royal Oak, 300 S. Main St., Royal Oak, Mich. 48067.

The department suggests that customers, such as the Piskins who purchased their tickets by credit card, write to their credit card company explaining that they have been charged for a service they did not receive. They are advised to protest the charge as a "billing error" under the Fair Credit Billing Act.

Though some credit cards may make an exception, the written notice typically must be received within 60 days after the charge first appeared on the monthly statement. As a result, Mrs. Piskin says she may have just have learned an expensive lesson.

"I'm not going to buy any more airline tickets until I'm ready to go," she said. "Bargains or no bargains."

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