The Frequent Flyer

 

Frank Thomas Smith

                                   

 

            I finished the magazine article and looked up. First Class check-in lines are supposed to be quick but this one hadn't moved in ten minutes. The ticket agent, a no-longer-young but still pretty little thing, seemed to be arguing with two male passengers. I shrugged mentally and flipped the page. Their problem, not mine--I thought. Half a page through the new article, the ticket agent was at my side looking up at me.

            "Good afternoon, Mr. Jacks," she said in Spanish. She seemed worried.

            I glanced at her nametag to refresh my memory. "Hello, Veronica. Problem?" I was also worried. I was traveling on a complementary ticket from Buenos Aires to Geneva and if the flight was full they might need to bump me, despite my reservation, which would mean some pretty desperate maneuvering to find a seat on another airline in order to arrive in Geneva in time for what my boss had billed as "a most important meeting."

            "I'm afraid so. Would you mind coming to the office?"

            I sighed, closed the magazine and placed it in my briefcase, picked up my garment bag and dutifully followed her pleasingly wiggling backside behind the check-in counter and into the Station Manager's office. I didn't have to look at his nametag. Ramirez was an old-timer, like me, who didn't like problems, feeling that he'd already had his share. Repressing the urge to brush the dandruff from the shoulders of his black Argentine Airlines uniform jacket, I shook his hand instead. In his other hand he held two airline tickets.

            "Veronica says there's something wrong with these tickets, Mr. Jacks," he said, and handed them to me.

            I looked at Veronica.

            "You said at the Fraud Detection seminar that neutral IATA tickets could only be issued by travel agents--" she pointed with a red fingernail at the box in the upper-right-hand corner of one of the tickets-- "but these were issued by Air France in Paris."

            I placed the tickets on Ramirez's desk and studied them: they were identical except for the passengers' names. Routing: Paris-Buenos Aires-Asunción-Buenos Aires-Madrid-Paris, First Class, all on Argentine Airlines. The stamp Veronica had pointed to read Air France, Paris, and the carrier's box at the bottom also indicated Air France.

            "You're right, Veronica. Congratulations."

            She threw an I-told-you-so look at the Station Manager and lit a cigarette.

            "I don't understand," Ramirez said.

            "You should have come to the seminar, Ramirez."

            It is general practice for management to send the low level employees to my seminars, which is positive in a way, because they are, after all, the front line troops, but then the manager has to make the decisions in ignorance, which isn't so positive and can be downright embarrassing, which was the case with Ramirez, whose face was beet-red. So I repented.

            "I know you're busy, hombre. Look." We bent over the tickets. "These tickets are called neutral because they are for travel agent use and any IATA airline can be designated issuing carrier. The travel agent's stamp is to go in the upper-right-hand corner, but these show Air France there--a technical impossibility. Airlines issue their own tickets, not neutral ones. Get it?"

            He nodded, but didn't look convinced.

            "Another anomaly is that the travel is all on Argentine Airlines," I went on didactically. "Why should Air France give all this business to you?"

            "That's a good point."

            "You're damn right it is," I agreed. "It's a classic symptom of a stolen ticket. Employees tend to be less alert about other airline's tickets than their own. The crooks know it, so they avoid traveling on the issuing airline's ticket. First Class can also be suspicious when linked to other factors--because it enhances the tickets' value."

            "What does it all mean?"

            "It all means that these tickets are either stolen or counterfeit. I'd say stolen as the quality of the paper is too good to be counterfeit."

            "Why aren't they on the blacklist then?" Ramirez asked, smugly, I thought. The thick booklet containing the numbers of all the known stolen airline tickets in the world was open on his desk.

            "They may have been stolen recently. It takes two to three weeks to get on the blacklist and another couple of months for the list to get down to your level. It's only issued twice a month. Did you check the computer?"

            "What for?" Ramirez said, annoyed at being showed up in front of Veronica, "It shows the same information as the booklet."

            "Wrong again," I said without mercy. "It shows real time information. Let's check."

            I sat at the computer in the corner and entered the required data, knowing that I could retrieve the information faster than he could, if he even knew how. But the result was negative.

            "What should I do, Mr. Jacks?" Ramirez asked. "We're getting close to departure time." 

            A Station Manager's primary responsibility is getting his flights out on time safely and with all the passengers and cargo on board and I knew that he didn't have time for such esoteric subjects as possibly stolen tickets. I didn't want to be too hard on Ramirez, but the responsibility was his.

            "Ask the passengers to come in," I told Veronica. "Maybe we can find out something more from them. What nationality are they?"

            "They have U.S. passports, but--" She crushed out her lipstick-smeared cigarette in Ramirez's ashtray.

            "But what?"

            "Well, my English isn't that good, but I think one of them has an accent."

            "What kind of accent?"

            "Spanish."

            "From Spain?"

            "No. It seems more Caribbean to me, but I can't be sure."

            "You're very observant, Veronica. Now get them in here. That will get your line moving again as well."

            I have a lot of experience interviewing passengers who try to travel with stolen tickets and know how they react and to what, so I sat down at Ramirez's desk in order to rise to my full height--I'm six-two--when they entered. This has the triple effect of indicating authority by using the manager's desk, showing courtesy by rising, and intimidating by superior height--usually. If the person to be interviewed is taller than I am, I remain seated.

            One of the passengers was a head shorter than me, moderately fat with bulging eyes and a graying, curly beard which I admired. Every time I grow a beard it comes out straight and spiky, so it doesn't last long. I keep my gray streaked moustache though. In fact everyone involved so far was graying, except Veronica, who probably dyed her hair. The other passenger was prematurely graying--he couldn't have been more than thirty. He was a half a head shorter than me. Both wore expensive shiny-blue suits and carried attaché-cases with combination locks.

            I stood up behind the desk. "Mr. Wilson?" I said looking at the bulging-eyed one.

            "That's me," the other one said, "and I'd like to know what the hell's goin' on here."

            Definitely American.

            "Excuse me. Then you must be Mr. Barkarian," I said.

            "I am, sir," bulge-eye said. "Although I would express myself differently, my sentiments are the same as Mr. Wilson's."

            Veronica was right, a Caribbean accent, possibly Venezuelan or Columbian.

            "I regret having to inconvenience you gentlemen this way, but there seems to be a problem with your tickets," I said, sounding like a doctor diagnosing high blood pressure.

            "Before asking you to state the problem, would you mind identifying yourself," Barkarian said. His voice was smooth but he was sweating profusely. Wilson's face was a mass of twitches. But then anyone would be nervous under the circumstances.

            "Of course. Please sit down." There were only two more chairs in the room, which left none for Ramirez. I handed each of them one of my cards, which they read, Barkarian quickly and Wilson moving his lips. What they saw couldn't have helped their nerves: Marvin Jacks, Regional Director Latin America for Fraud Detection - International Air Transport Association, and my address in Buenos Aires.

            "Very well," Barkarian said, putting the card in his breast pocket. "Now what is the exact problem with our tickets? The young lady at the counter was rather incoherent, I'm afraid."

            "They appear to be stolen," I said.

            "We came all the way from Paris with them tickets and no one said nothin'," Wilson said loudly.

            "They didn't notice in Paris, which is a very busy airport."

            "You say that they appear to be stolen. I take it that means that you do not know that they are stolen," Barkarian said. "Is that correct, Mr. Jacks?"

            I knew then that these were no innocent passengers who had been duped into buying stolen tickets. Innocent passengers--the majority--don't ask me how I know. They accept what I say and begin volunteering information about the rat who sold them the tickets cheap. But the question was aimed directly at my Achilles heel. I knew the tickets were stolen but couldn't prove it because they weren't on the blacklist. Someone could have made a mistake putting the airline's name in the wrong box and a routing on a different airline, which, although very unusual except on stolen tickets, was not in itself proof of anything. First Class is, in itself, innocuous.

            "There are certain indications which point in that direction," I said evasively. "But before we come to that I'd like to ask you where you purchased them. I'm sure I can count on your cooperation." (if you're innocent, that is).

            "In Paris," Wilson said, and flinched from the kick he received under the table from Barkarian.

            "Yes, but where in Paris? From a travel agent?" I asked Wilson.

            "No," Barkarian answered. "We bought them through a hotel concierge."

            "Which hotel?"

            "L'hermitage."        

            "Don't believe I know it. Address?" I took notes, more for effect that necessity.

            "Place St. Michel." Barkarian had taken over the answering role. "It's small but comfortable."

            "I don't doubt it. How much did you pay for them?"

            "The fare is on the tickets, I believe."

            "Yes, over five thousand dollars apiece. Did you pay the full fare?"

            "Of course."

            Lies. All stolen tickets are heavily discounted.

            "Do you have a receipt?" I asked, knowing the answer.

            "No, we considered the tickets to be receipts," Barkarian lied. "Isn't that right?"

            "No. And I seriously doubt that Argentine Airlines will accept these tickets for travel."

            They looked at Ramirez with his four-striped sleeves.

            "Pero no están en la lista negra, Sr. Jacks," he blurted out.

            I expected Barkarian to come down on me hard after hearing that the tickets weren't on the blacklist, but he pretended not to have understood.

            "What should we do?" he asked, showing alarm for the first time. "We must be in Madrid tomorrow."

            "You can always buy new ones," I answered affably. It was all a game now. What I wanted to do was call in the gendarmes and have them and their baggage searched for more stolen tickets. But that would mean hauling them off the flight. And if I was wrong, if they were clean, it could mean complaints to head office and possible law suits against both IATA and Argentine Airlines.

            "Very well," Barkarian said. "Will a credit card do?" he asked Ramirez.

            "Yes sir."

            Barkarian handed him an American Express card. I told Ramirez in Spanish to be sure to check it out on the credit card blacklist, but Barkarian didn't bat an eye, only took an extra large handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped his profusely sweating brow. Ramirez went out to the counter to issue the new tickets.

            "If you'll give me your addresses, gentlemen, we may be able to make restitution for these tickets if we find the thieves," I said, looking at Wilson.

            "Hey, you mean you're keeping them?"

            "That's right."

            "Under what authority, Mr. Jacks?" Barkarian asked.

            "The International Airline Association," I said in a manner which suggested that if they wanted them back they'd have to fight for them.

            "I hope you know what you are doing."

            "I usually do."   

            Ramirez came back with the new tickets. He was about to give them to the passengers but I held out my hand and he gave them to me. I copied the baggage check numbers in my notebook and handed them over.

            "Please go to the gate now, gentlemen," Ramirez said. "It's late."

            Wilson and Barkarian jumped up, grabbed their attach‚ cases and hurried out without a word.

            "You better go too, Mr. Jacks."

            "I haven't checked in yet. Take care of it for me, will you?" I handed him my ticket. "No baggage and cancel my connection to Geneva. I have to make a phone call."

            Ramirez groaned. "I'll take a delay for sure."

            I dialed my secretary's home number, hoping she was there. She was.

            "Amalia, querida, Please phone Ricardo Rico in Madrid and ask him to meet me on arrival of Argentine Airlines flight number...Oh hell, you have the number--and to tell customs to search the bags bearing the following numbers." I told her the numbers I had jotted down in my notebook. "They'll be looking for a quantity of blank airline tickets. Ricardo should wait outside for me, not in the customs area. Got it?"

            It was a message I would later regret sending, for if I hadn't Ricardo Rico would still be alive.

            "Tomorrow morning send a telex in my name to Claude Pierremot in Paris and tell him to find out if the following tickets have been stolen." I gave her the numbers of the tickets I had confiscated. "He should phone me at the Hotel Mindinao in Madrid as soon as he has the info. If I'm not in he should leave a message, yes or no. Everything clear? Fine. What would I do without you?" Ramirez was standing at my elbow with a blue boarding pass in his hand.

            "What's this--Business Class?" I said.

            "Those two took the last First Class seats. Sorry." But I think he was glad, and I didn't blame him.

            "Shit," I muttered in English. "I should have had them arrested."

            I ran to the escalator, then through immigration control and to the finger gate where Veronica and the Boeing 747 were waiting for me.    

            "I'll see that you get the reward for spotting those tickets, Veronica," I said as I handed her my boarding pass. "It's not much, but what the hell, every little bit helps."

            "Thank you very much, Mr. Jacks--"

            I dashed into the tube and her parting words reverberated through its length: "--and have a nice trip!"                                

 


Continued in the next issue of SCR