British Airways Will Repay Customers After Fraud Ruling

If you flew British Airways between the U.S. and England from August 11, 2004 to March 23, 2006, you may be in luck. BA was caught charging passengers a fuel surcharge that went beyond the actual cost of the gas. The scandal also involved Virgin Atlantic, so travelers who flew with that airline during the above dates are eligible to get in on the action.

Don’t start getting excited or jumping up and down like you’ve won the lottery. The maximum refund per person will be around $20. Still, that’s four beers or five lattes or a fairly decent haircut (in some cities).

Those who are eligible for a refund can apply online with their ticket info, passport number, or frequent flier card. Those who didn’t fly BA or Virgin can still feel good because, for once, big airlines got caught with their hands in passengers’ pockets.

With most airlines going out of their way to cut costs and nickel and dime passengers with added fees, it might not be the last time something like this happens.

Several BA and Virgin execs involved in the surcharge scandal will be doing some hard time after being charged with fraud.

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Does Thomas Kohnstamm deserve an apology?

In an interview posted late yesterday at World Hum, Lonely Planet author Thomas Kohnstamm explains how he’s unwittingly found himself at the center of an unexpected controversy.

The author, who was quoted by dozens of newspapers over the weekend admitting to all kinds of guidebook-writing malfeasance, says that the situation has been “blown way out of proportion.” In fact, Kohnstamm claims, he wasn’t guilty of anything besides accepting a few comps and doing a bit of hotel and restaurant research on the internet instead of in person.

Several days ago, before the World Hum interview, I wrote an oft-cited post calling Kohnstamm a fraud and expressing outrage at his behavior. Now that Kohnstamm has backtracked from his previous statements, does he deserve an apology?

Well, yes and no. Kohnstamm certainly was not guilty of all the charges leveled at him, and some of the criticism he received was unfair. He doesn’t appear to be a massive plagiarizer of the Jayson Blair ilk, and I’d wager he’s far from the devil he’s been made out to be, here and elsewhere. Also, it probably would have been prudent for me to contact him before writing the “fraud” post to see if he was quoted correctly, even though he doesn’t dispute that he was.

With all that said, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Kohnstamm, since he was the one responsible for bringing up these charges in the first place. He repeatedly gave his interviewer the impression that he was a veritable “bad boy” of travel writing, saying, for example, of his agreement with Lonely Planet regarding the Colombia guidebook:

“They didn’t pay me enough to go (to) Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating-an intern in the Colombian Consulate.”

Clearly, Kohnstamm’s implication is that he was supposed to visit Colombia, but the misers at Lonely Planet were too cheap to make it worthwhile. Turns out, as Justin reported yesterday, Kohnstamm and LP agreed that he wouldn’t visit Colombia, as he was responsible only for writing the history, environment, food and drink, and culture sections of the book. So why make that explicit to the interviewer? Easy: because that’s not interesting, and it doesn’t move books.

Now, Kohnstamm is calling his Colombia claim “regrettable” and “an unfortunate choice of words.” Hard to argue with that.

His situation now is a bit like that of the college guy on Spring Break who lies to his buddies, telling them that he cheated on his girlfriend with a gorgeous, blonde 19-year-old. When the news eventually makes it back to the girlfriend– as it always does– he’s in the unenviable position of having to explain that before he was lying, but now he’s telling the truth.

As for the claim that he accepted “comps” from hotels and restaurants, he says that’s true, but he tried to avoid doing it as much as possible. Frankly, I can’t work up much outrage over this, and I’d never condemn a guidebook author for taking a discount here and there– as long as they aren’t in exchange for positive reviews. Kohnstamm is right that these guys don’t get paid much, and hell, I’d probably take a discount or two myself. (Gadling credentials, anyone?)

All this doesn’t leave me feeling as if I have much to apologize for, I must say. Look back at my original post, and I’ll stand by what I wrote: Self-promotion? Entitlement? Decreasing the reputation of LP and its hard-working writers? As Elvis used to say, I’ll take all of the above with a side order of more.

But wait, does Kohnstamm even want an apology? Probably not. He just wants everybody to forget about this. But oh yeah, remember to buy his book.

Back from the grave, 5 years later

Have you guys been following the bizarre story unfolding about a man, thought to be dead for five years, who walked into a police station in the UK? Turns out he might have been conning everyone (except his wife). He’s been claiming amnesia on everything that’s happened to him since 2000. How convenient.

The theory, as of today, is that he staged his own death to escape a mounting pile of debt. Then he moved to Panama, where allegedly his wife has been meeting up with him for the past three summers. What’s sick about the situation is not only the insurance fraud (his wife collected on his life insurance, naturally), but that they told their kids he died!!!

There’s still plenty of mystery here. Why did he turn himself in all of a sudden, now? How did his wife meet him in Panama for so many years with no records, or Panamanian visa?

Bonnie and Clyde: Ivy League style

From the lovely people at the New York Post comes a holiday story of fraud and greed. A 20-something couple, one of whom went to UPenn, spent the past year jetsetting around the world, on everyone else’s dime. The press has labeled them the “21st century version of Bonnie and Clyde” for going horseback riding in Hawaii and Caribbean, drinking champagne in private hot tubs at posh resorts, and flying back and forth to New York, Paris, London, and Montreal.

What’s really creepy is that they had duplicate keys to 30 of their neighbors’ apartments. Yikes. I did, however, find it somewhat funny like some true Ivy Leaguers, they needed prep books to do anything: “The Art of Cheating: A Nasty Little Book for Tricky Little Schemers and Their Hapless Victims,” was found in their apartment, which coincidentally was paid for with stolen money.

Anyways, just another reminder this holiday season to be careful with your personal data and identity. Cheers!

Travel Fraud

By now, if you’ve been on the Internet
for even a small amount of time, you’ve gotten your share of scam emails. These are called "phishing" or
at least a breed of them is called that, and unless you are either really old or really stupid, you know that the best
way to deal with these emails is to simply hit delete. Yes, get rid of them. In fact, for the most part, if you get any
kind of email from your financial institution, African Princes, or purveyors of potency creams, that ask you for money
or offer to send you to a login screen to "update" their records, well, just stop and ask yourself a
question: am I really that dumb?

Fraud is everywhere. In fact, where travel is concerned it may be even more
prevalent. Why? Because people hold out the hope, (call our species Homo Spaiens-Optimistiens) that somewhere, just
waiting for us is a great deal, that somewhere somehow we can get a free lunch, that we’ll be the lucky one that wins
the lottery or is the recipient of some person’s largesse for free.

Folks, ninety nine percent of the time,
that is hokum. And so we turn to ABC News
and a story that seeks to help you navigate the world of travel fraud. The article is OK, but I confess its a no
brainer to me that you don’t accept or follow up on a travel offer "prize" that comes to you in the
mail…but others I guess are not so skeptical. But it’s worth a read at the very least to know what kind of traps you
need to prevent your grandparents from falling into.