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Tuesday, July 4, 2006

THE ZEIT GIST

Travel firm rapped over foreigner ticket policy

Top travel agency charges foreigners more for 'discount' air tickets


The nation's largest discount travel agency, HIS, which also runs foreigner-friendly No.1 Travel, has based the price of some air tickets from Japan on the nationality of the traveler, possibly in breach of Japanese law, The Japan Times has learned.

News photo
Holidaygoers line up at airline check-in counters at New Tokyo International airport, Narita. AP PHOTO

Foreigners trying to buy discount tickets through the company were quoted higher prices than Japanese customers purchasing discount seats on the same flight.

The policy came to light when the company offered a discount ticket to Los Angeles over the telephone to a Japanese caller, but said it was no longer available at the quoted price after finding out a Canadian was the intended traveler.

It then informed the caller that the price for the ticket would be higher for a non-Japanese customer.

However, Japanese Air Law, Article 105, Paragraph 2, clearly states that "no specific passenger or consigner will be unfairly discriminated against."

The company, which has acknowledged the ticketing policy, has defended its actions, denying ticketing pricing discrimination and suggesting foreign customers pose a threat to profits.

Jason, a Canadian resident of Japan, wanted to fly on All Nippon Airways to Los Angeles just after Golden Week and asked his Japanese girlfriend to check for cheap tickets online.

She eventually found a return ticket to Los Angeles listed on the HIS Web site for 57,000 yen.

Jason's girlfriend called HIS in Shinjuku to find out if the tickets were still available and was told that they were. She relayed this information to Jason in English.

"She was speaking to them in Japanese and then talking to me in English," he said.

Soon after, the sales assistant asked if the ticket was for her, and, having been told it wasn't, asked about the nationality of the person who wanted to buy it.

Jason's girlfriend explained that the customer would be Canadian, and was promptly told that the ticket "is not available, and (that) the price for a non-Japanese person is 70,000 yen."

Surprised, the couple confirmed that this was the case by contacting No.1 Travel in Shinjuku, an affiliate of HIS. They then reconfirmed the company's policy with HIS in Iidabashi.

"With corporations as big as HIS there's a lack of communication and one person will tell you one thing and another person will tell you another. That's why we checked it three times," he said.

When the couple asked why the prices for foreigners and Japanese nationals were different, they were told that the tickets were part of a package tour which had been canceled and that HIS was now selling the tickets to Japanese people only.

The couple are baffled at the explanation given.

"This is a strange story. There is no reason for these tickets to be cheaper for Japanese people than foreigners.

"They're boarding the same plane, eating the same food and getting the same service. There's no way that foreigners treatment would be any different to that of Japanese."

"They're reasoning or their justification doesn't make any sense, it doesn't satisfy me," says Jason.

"I live and work in Japan, and I pay the same taxes, I should be entitled to that ticket price," he said.

But Yukie Kinokuni, from the Corporate Planning Department of H.I.S. Co., Ltd., argues that business concerns, not discrimination, dictated the pricing policy.

According to Kinokuni, foreigners buy return tickets because they are cheaper than one-way tickets. They then return to their countries and don't use the return portion.

"In this case the airline may charge us the full fare which means low profits or a loss.

"So in order to avoid the risk we restricted the tickets to Japanese only customers, who will definitely return to Japan."

In doing so, they don't feel they were being discriminatory.

"We have never thought of ourselves as being discriminatory," said Kinokuni.

The ticketing policy has surprised both ANA and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, who both claim they had no prior knowledge of the company's actions and have demanded it be stopped.

Although HIS sets ticketing policy, it is ANA that is liable under the law for fines associated with ticketing discrimination, according to a spokesman for the Aviation Industries Division of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

But ANA has denied any prior knowledge of the practice, describing the ticketing policy as "hard to understand" and pointing the finger of blame at HIS.

"The first time we heard about this was when you contacted us and asked us about it," said Toshiki Yamamoto, Manager of Public Relations for All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd.

"We fix our prices, as far as we know according to the law. We can't control the retail end and what price they are setting.

"If they are selling in that manner, we are going to have to tell them that they can't do that, but as to where the responsibility lies, if they're selling it at a price that they are fixing, I think the responsibility lies with them," said Yamamoto.

HIS confirmed that ANA was not aware of the policy, saying the company does not report back to ANA and is wholly responsible for setting prices and the conditions of their own tickets.

But it was also quick to deny responsibility, with Kinokuni stating: "We don't recognize that we sold prohibited tickets. Therefore we are not liable for a fine."

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