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Airline Ticket Consolidators Look to Improve Pail Image

Discounters: Some 'bucket shops' form a trade group to bolster their reputations. But don't expect frequent-flier miles.

June 16, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Two questions arrive in this department with great frequency.

One: What is a bucket shop?

Two: What does an airline consolidator do?

There is one answer. Consolidators buy large amounts of tickets from airlines at discounted prices, then sell those tickets to the public, either through travel agents or directly. These businesses are said to have picked up the nickname "bucket shops" in England a decade or more ago, probably because of their high-volume business operations, but no one seems to know exactly why.

Some consumers suppose that consolidator tickets must be for seats on smaller, off-brand airlines. And it is true that many agencies that sell consolidator tickets also sell tickets on lesser-known charter carriers such as Excalibur (which flies between the United States and Britain). But United, American, Delta and the other major carriers are big participants in the consolidator trade. They're just not fond of discussing it, in the same way that many clothing manufacturers don't like advertising the discount outlets where their "seconds" go.

Consolidators concentrate on transatlantic, transpacific and Latin American tickets. Unless there's a big fare war on, consolidators fares are usually substantially cheaper than those offered by the airlines themselves--especially on flights to Asia and Latin America, where editors of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter have found price differences of up to hundreds of dollars. And consolidator tickets are often free of the advance-purchase requirements and other restrictions imposed by airlines on their cheapest tickets.

But there are drawbacks. Phone lines are often busy and reservation agents rushed. Consolidators handle very few domestic tickets, and when they do, their prices aren't much different from the restricted coach fares offered directly by the airlines. Also, many consolidator contracts with airlines exclude frequent-flier miles, so that you may get no mileage credit for your travel, even if you've spent $800 on an 8,000-mile round-trip ticket. Also, cancellation penalties on consolidator tickets may be greater than on tickets bought from the airlines directly.

For a long time, consolidators had a reputation as marginal, not entirely reliable operators, perhaps because their contracts with carriers forbade them from naming airlines in their ads, perhaps because consolidators tend to be small shops with narrow profit margins, perhaps because consolidators' print advertisements often amount to a tiny box with an eye-catching fare, a mysterious phone number, and no business name. I'm still inclined to back away from any consolidator who rejects credit cards and will take only cash.

But in recent years, consolidators have been working to improve their reputations, and more travel agencies have started using them.

Led by Ross Webster, president of Los Angeles-based Jetset Tours, seven consolidator companies in July, 1995, filed papers to form the nonprofit U.S. Air Consolidators Assn. The group's counsel, Gerald J. Desmond Jr., says members must provide industry references; attest that they're free of bankruptcies or trade-related felony convictions for the last 12 years; claim sales of $10 million in scheduled airline tickets through travel agents yearly; and show they have surety bonds or trust accounts to safeguard travelers' money in the event of a business failure.

So far, most members of the association (which includes Jetset, Diplomat Tours of Sacramento, J&O Air of San Diego and Picasso Travel of Los Angeles) sell their tickets through travel agencies, and not directly to consumers.

Although not an endorsement, here are several veteran discount agencies that do sell consolidator tickets to the public, and accept credit cards.

* All Continents Travel (tel. [800] 368-6822 or [310] 337-1641), based in Los Angeles with offices elsewhere, sells tickets to Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa.

* Australia New Zealand (ANZ) Travel (tel. [800] 244-0957), Laguna Hills, books to Europe, Hawaii, Asia, Latin America.

* Cheap Tickets (tel. [800] 377-1000), based in Honolulu with offices in Westchester and Fullerton, sells tickets to Europe, the Pacific, Hawaii and the U.S.

* Continental Travel Shop (tel. [310] 453-8655), based in Santa Monica, specializes in tickets to Europe.

* Council Travel (tel. [310] 208-3551 or [310] 598-3338), with offices in Los Angeles, Long Beach, among other locations, sells tickets to Europe, Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East.

* Magical Holidays (tel. [800] 433-7773), based in New York with a San Francisco office, specializes in Africa, but also sells tickets to Europe and the Middle East.

* STA Travel (tel. [800] 777-0112 or [213] 934-8722 or [310] 824-1574), based in London with three Los Angeles-area offices, sells tickets to Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

* World Link Travel Network ([310] 342-1280 or [310] 453-8884 or [213] 385-0538), with L.A. and Santa Monica offices, tickets to Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845.

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