Are there Ethics to Booking Frequent Flyer Awards for Clients?

Are there some award trips that I just shouldn’t book for clients on moral grounds?

I’m not talking about routing rules and whether to push the envelope with a program over what is allowable for getting a stopover. I’m talking about some awards that I just shouldn’t book because of who they are for or where they are going?

I received a request this morning that made me uncomfortable, though I fully admit that I don’t yet have all of the information about what’s motivating the trip.

A woman wants two award tickets from the U.S. to Iran — one roundtrip for herself, and one one-way ticket for her 8 year old daughter.

I’ve spent the morning thinking about this, and here are some tentative thoughts:

  • I’m not a public utility. I don’t have an obligation to serve any request that is brought to me. It’s ok for me to turn down a booking request that makes me uncomfortable.

  • I’m not sure that the full story even matters. Perhaps the arrangement is that the father is already in Iran and is responsible for the tickets home for the girl, that’s why the mother only wants me to book one-way. Or perhaps there’s some other explanation. I have no way to know the veracity of the story even if it’s shared with me, and no matter how benign sounding I will always wonder if the girl came back. Or if I somehow participated in sending an 8 year old girl one-way to Iran to live.

  • That’s a view based on ignorance (lack of full information) but I cannot really get full information, so I have no choice but to formulate my decisions on partial information, which is something we do in making moral choices all the time.

  • This position very much judges Iran, and judges Islam, and as much as I tend towards moral relativism I don’t want any part of sending an 8 year old girl from the US to Iran. I don’t want to participate in sending a girl into a society which subjugates women, and I fear assisting in a trip which could lead to female genital mutilation.

I don’t believe I would be uniquely making it possible for the girl to go, even permanently, by helping the mother use miles for the trip. After all, they can still buy tickets, they just might not be flying business class. Yet I still think that if the trip is one-way permanently to Iran, I at least shouldn’t make it easier or more comfortable.

I’ve turned away a customer. What would you have done?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Being the son of immigrants from Iran, now happily living in Los Angeles, I applaud your decision.

    The religion is irrelevant. They may be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whatever. IMO, Iran is not a safe environment for any female.

  2. I think you did the right think, but you mayby could have asked if her daughter came back later with someone else. Such questions could have caused some answers wich might helped you with choosing.

  3. Gary I also respect and applaud your decision. I wish there was more that could be done. Did you tell the client why? I would be keen to know her response (perhaps even contact local authorities in her area to see if there is anything they can do if she says it is what we fear it is).

  4. Gary, You have every right to turn down request that make you feel uncomfortable.

    I also applaud your decision in sticking with your gut instinct.

  5. I’m sorry but you’ve made a lot of assumptions only because the woman is from Iran. You automatically assume that the young girl would be subjected to female genital mutilation – a practice which is only practiced by a small group of Arab and Kurdish Sunni Iranians in a predominantly Persian and Shiite nation.

    If the woman were going to Japan and making the same arrangments would you think the same things? Would you fear that you would be aiding in a trip that would lead to child pornography – a problem that is more prevalent in Japan than female genital mutilation in Iran?

    You need to examine your inner biases!

  6. @Dfyant I did tell the client my reason, I have not heard back.

    @Roxanne the whole point of this post is that I’ve been spending the morning examining my biases and struggling to figure out the right thing to do, and what I’m comfortable with. I didn’t make my judgment ‘just because the woman is from Iran’ but rather ‘just because she wants a one-way ticket to Iran for her 8 year old daughter’. So in sharing this story I’m exposing myself and my inner thinking to the world. I decided that I just wasn’t comfortable assisting with a one-way award to send an 8 year old girl to Iran, and it isn’t just about female genital mutilation that was an example of one of the many conceivable scenarios, it’s in general about the idea that I didn’t want to participate in sending a young girl one-way to a society that subjugates women. It won’t stop them from making the trip I’d imagine but it’s precisely because I do not know, and cannot know, the truth of the matter (regardless of what I’m told), and that I’d always be wondering and it would nag at me, that I didn’t think I could participate.

  7. As a landlord, I have found when a tenant’s application seems odd it’s bad for my business.

    Trust your sixth sense. Turn down the woman’s request.

  8. I believe that when dealing with a problem, there are three outcomes. You can (1) solve it, (2) move it or (3) make it worse.

    If you define the problem as oppression of women by some extreme regimes, then you can’t personally solve it. You could make it worse, at least for that child, by finding the tickets. Or, you can move it (the mother has to find a different way of arranging the flights).

    That’s the best you can do.

    I sense that you’d like to find a way to solve it (find out the truth of the situation, prevent a scenario you find offensive, but that isn’t within your realm of control.

    I’m guessing that the left over feelings come from doing the best you can, but suspecting that it isn’t enough for that child.

    All that said, I applaud your decision, and would do the same.

  9. Kudos to you. And what Steve K said is spot on. Sometimes we can only do our best and it makes us uncomfortable that it’s not enough.

  10. Good call Gary.
    When you let others into the inner workings of your mind, you expose yourself to negative comments from ‘holier than thou’ types. I would ignore them and stick with my inner voice.

  11. I think that all the posters above are blinded by their prejudices of what constitutes Iranian society.

    It is fair to assume that the Iranian government is run by Islamic fanatics. However, as in all oppressed societies, the people vary from their government. Furthermore, you are all assuming that only an Iranian mother has the heart to actively take actions which would result in the oppression of her child.

    Shame on all of you for thinking the worst possible scenario!

  12. Just a question, but is it even legal for an American to facilitate business transactions with the Iranian government? Typically award redemptions involve the paying of govement taxes even on free tickets.

    Perhaps this could be a loophole to remove the decision from a determination based on morality.

  13. I, for one, think you made the right decision in this case. Had the woman been more forthcoming with details – as in sharing the purpose of the young girl’s one way itinerary – then perhaps you would not have felt the negative vibe that you did. However, you, as a service provider, certainly have the final say. I do hope you let her know of your final decision not to book the itinerary and that you were as open to herabout the reasons…as blunt as you have stated here in your blog.

  14. A lot of prejudice against Iran comes through in your post. Genital mutilation, really? That’s why you did this?

    ‘Crowdsourcing’ the answer in the US is going to get you a lot of agreement because the broad public has a very negative view of Iran (and of Islam). I have no knowledge of the individual situation nor of what’s going on in Iran etc.

    You made a decision based on the information available to you, to turn down the client. That’s perfectly reasonable. But you should really think about if – or why – you’re using this post to help you get comfortable with a decision that was made in part due to strong prejudices against that country.

    I suggest withdrawing this blog post.

  15. Going to Iran just makes this worse — any parent booking an international RT when the child is on a OW should flag a concern!

    Gary, the only difference in how I would handle it is that I probably wouldn’t post about it. You really don’t have to justify your decision to anyone. Just hang a sign on your office wall that says ‘we reserve the right to refuse service for any reason!’

  16. That’s a tough call. As someone else noted, if your gut feeling is negative, trust your gut in something like this. Could you be wrong? Sure. But in some situations you just don’t have enough info to make a perfect decision and that’s where instinct comes in. I also tend to agree with hobo13 about a RT parent and OW child – not that it can’t be, or perhaps usually is, perfectly innocent…but it could be a red flag.

  17. For summer vacation travel, it is rather ordinary for those who are immigrants from various parts of Asia (Iran included) to get a one-way ticket for their child in conjunction with their own travel there who will then come back with the other parent and/or a grandparent as the parent who flies there has to return earlier for work and/or other obligations.

    Female genital mutilation in Iran? Iran isn’t Africa, where FGM has greater prevalence and is done by some Christians, animists and Muslims. Nothing religious about the practice anywhere.

  18. By the way, under Iranian law, the father of the child has greater rights for family reunification than the mother. Even if the mother were to abduct her child to Iran without the consent of a custodial father, the father would be in a better legal position than if the child’s mother were Swedish and were to run off with the child to Sweden without the custodial father’s consent.

  19. You done good. And NEVER let the bleating of self-righteous fools who are either ignorant of reality or choose to deny it stop you from doing the right thing.

  20. Gary, I respected your decision. IMHO, if we are not comfortable with doing any particular thing in our mind, then we should not do this at all regardless of the reason. However, there are people who had booked one way ticket to Asia for their kid, and then their relative(s) books the other ticket to come back to the state…

  21. Gary,

    I read your blog on a regular basis (religiously if I may say so). However, some of your comments are uninformed.

    As a Muslim Shiite (yes, so you know a lot of my co-religionists who are also miles obsessed), I shared your post with my wife. And trust me, she is not subjugated and as a working professional is quite outspoken. While we both agree with you that it does raise red flags, and you may be right for this individual case, you are also making a couple of erroneous statements.

    The first one is that contrary to public perception, women have more rights in Iran than countries like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Unlike those countries, they can drive, attend college, become professors, doctors or lawyers, be elected member of parliament,..etc. Yes, the present regime is extremist and compared to the West, women rights have ways to go. But would you have made the same decision if the destination would gave been Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or China?

    Also, while female genital mutilation happens in some Muslim African societies (Egypt, Kenya,…etc), it does not happen in Iran and it is actually not a religious practice but purely tribal/cultural.

    Anyway, I don’t want to get into a political and religious argument but suffice to say, you acted as per your conscience and that’s fine.

  22. You made the right move. The landlord’s comment above is spot on.

    When I had a decent-sized business years ago, I found that my gut was a very important decision-making aid. It evolved for a reason, and you should trust it.

  23. Gary,
    Although I’ve only met you once and heard you speak a couple of times at the last ChicagoDO, I think you made the right decision and I think that it’s consistent with my perception that you are a very rational, thoughtful person. There are probably a number of countries you might have on your “no-fly” list where you would not feel comfortable booking the ticket. Each of us has a moral compass and our gut feel about things like this is usually right.

  24. As a divorced parent: it is actually pretty normal to have one parent travelling on a roundtrip to drop off a kid travelling on a oneway. Very likely the dad is making similar arrangements to return the kid at the end of the summer. If there weren’t one way awards it would likely be a request for a roundtrip with the mom returning in a week and the kid returning in a few months. Also the mom will have to have a notarized travel authorization letter from the dad in order to travel internationally with the kid. But logic shouldn’t trump your gut, so if you don’t feel right about it, something is probably off.

  25. If anything you are showing bias toward Iran by referring to them as Islamic and attributing their crimes against humanity to their society as a whole when the dictatorial regime holding their culture hostage is more of a bizarre cult using a thinly veiled guise of religion to justify their brutal means of maintaining military rule and suppressing any sort of popular tradition consistent with the history of islam or persia which could accurately still be deemed a society. Sure, you can’t know whether the child could be left in Iran or will return on another ticket, but danger does not have to imminent to be real. Would you give someone directions to walk across a mine field just because you cannot assume they will step on a mine and because assuming they would step on a mine would be judging their culture? The political situation in Iran is basically a minefield and you should not send a child into it, even some will cross it unscathed. Also, forget genital mutilation, what about the other facts of denying the girl an education and making her walk around all day in some mask that did not exist in islamic culture until a bunch of thugs with guns started tell people it did 30 years ago? What about the fact that if she grows up there, the government will shoot her through the eye if she attends a public rally advertised on facebook? Some aspects of culture are relative, like cricket vs. baseball or soccer/football vs. american football. This is not relative.

  26. Permit me to observe how much other information you lack.

    Do you/should you feel uneasy booking a first class round trip ticket for a fifty year old white seeming male to Thailand? After all, it might be for sexual tourism and pedophilia.

    Do you/should you feel uneasy booking a coach round trip for a young woman to Colombia or Peru? She might be a more or less witting drug mule.

    Do you/should you feel uneasy booking a one way ticket for a child from any developing country to a developed one? He or she could be a child sold for illegal adoption.

    Do you feel/should you feel uneasy booking a one way ticket for any teenage girl from Eastern Europe to a richer country? It could be a prostitution racket.

    Do you/should you feel uneasy booking one way tickets to Israel for a family? They could be would be colonialists aiming to steal Palestinian land?

    Would you/should you feel uneasy booking a one way ticket from the United states to India for a very young Indian sounding woman? It could be an arranged marriage.

    What about a ticket for a young woman at the request of the Office of the Italian Prime Minister? What about a ticket for a young man at the request of the Vatican?

    What bothers me is the particularity of Iran.

    The place, like most places on Earth, needs a change of management. Of course the same could have been said of the United States until quite recently or, some would say, currently.

    Iran clearly needs change in its civil society. The same thing could be said of South Africa not so long ago, the rest of Africa today, India, Israel, France, Italy or, if you are atheist or a believer in human rights and a state of law, the United States of America. Not to mention the Catholic Church.

    I would By all means attempt to be ethical. But do ask yourself if you are thinking the worst of some places and the best of others. My first thought was she was going to stay with her grandmother.

  27. Robert,

    Would you/should you feel uneasy booking a one-way ticket for an 8-year jewish girl to Germany in 1936? A lot of other places on earth needed a change of management at the same time, so it would be wrong to single anyone out right?

  28. I believe a mother who is intelligent enough to read your blog and know about your service, AND who has collected so many miles by flying, credit card, whatever, AND is living in the US, would put her daughter in harm’s way (like what, FGM?). It’s just pure bias. After all, the situation for women in Iran is no worse than many Arab nations in the region. Next time, please refuse to book a oneway ticket for any American girl who wants to fly back from Europe to the US, because by doing so you essentially kill her chance to be a female president/PM/Chancellor.

  29. Alright people. As an Iranian-American, who has dealt with this kind of shit as a kid between two divorced parents, this is totally a strange request and very fishy. I would have also turned it down.

  30. Great, thought provoking comments.

    I would have done the same.

    Makes me wonder how much American bias/misinformation is in the comments and how much different the comments would be on a more international blog.

    After reading The Pat Tillman Story by John Krakauer, I just wonder how often we are blatantly lied to by our government, and what information really is true.

    Krakauer has lots of documentation and footnotes, and it is plain scary what was released as the truth.

  31. Curious – what is the easiest way from the States to Iran on points? Gulf Air or Etihad? LH through FRA?

    Despite the current sanctions, the Cuba-like travel restrictions don’t apply, do they?

  32. As someone with Iranian-American relatives and friends, whether divorced or not or children of divorced parents or not, this kind of request from a parent or couple of means would seem ordinary enough given my own family travel history. If it was for during the school year at non-vacation times of the year, then I would probably wonder more about the situation. Personally, everyone ought to have a right to choose with whom to do business (or not) with whomever they feel comfortable or not, absent being a regulated business that is hindered in part from doing so, in so far as there is no violation of law.

    I have traveled with my minor relatives without the other custodial parent many times in such a manner and have never had a substantial problem, (“authorization” letter or not) absent dealing with someone who assumed the worst for no good reason. The irony of ironies is that most of the prejudice applied in such situations comes from those of the same ethnic background as the custodial parent, particularly when a custodial father is involved and doing so entirely lawfully.

  33. MarcInHouston,

    Gary asked about the ethics of the matter. I am suggesting that he reflect upon the possible prejudices that he might be bringing to the table as he sets out to cast the net. And that would be to the end of casting the net as widely as is reasonably possible.

    It is up to him to decide whether that involves, for example, a blanket ban on children on oneway tickets, a blanket ban on children on oneway tickets to international destinations, a blanket ban on children on oneway tickets to countries with weak child law, a blanket ban on children on oneway tickets to the Middle East and Southern Asia, a blanket ban on children on oneway tickets to countries with Islamic populations, a blanket ban on children on oneway tickets to Iran, or a blanket ban on children on oneway tickets whenever “his spider sense tingles”.

    A well-thought out, justifiable, explicitly stated policy would go a long way to addressing the suspicion that political agendas and well-rooted prejudices are merely finding another domain in which to covertly exercise their corrosive influence to the end of further dividing us from one another on the road to the next bombing campaign.

    A celebrated American said that travel is the enemy of prejudice. I would strive to keep travel from being further cluttered by prejudice and political agendas.

  34. This here will be my last post for the blog entry, but is there any idea of how the woman making the award booking request found out about the booking service? I am curious if there is any chance that the woman who made the request for the award booking will be posting here too.

    When it comes to “doing business with” transactions involving countries like Iran, North Korea, Cuba and any other countries the US has blacklisted in some form or another, a hesitation to want to facilitate travel to such places may be a rather natural risk-mitigation strategy when investing further time to know what is and is not legally allowed and under what conditions may not be worth it for an otherwise busy party, including those making award travel bookings.

  35. Robert:

    if you have such insight into Gary’s business, perhaps you should go into competition against him.

  36. You made a decision and you have to live with the consequences.

    One of which is that I will never use your service and will let my friends and family know they should avoid your service.

    If you are so sure in your thinking you now have a MORAL obligation to report this to the authorities and to child protective services.

    Only a coward would say “I’m so concerned by this request that I’m no going to help a mother send her child to Iran…but I’m not concerned enough to actually pick up a phone and try to protect the child.”

    If you are GENUINELY afraid for this girl…you HAVE to act.

    My guess is that you won’t report this to anyone because deep down you know what you did was wrong.

  37. toomanybooks,

    Gary begins the thread with this question: “Are there some award trips that I just shouldn’t book for clients on moral grounds?” I offered an answer. How that constitutes grounds for your comment is unclear. If you would like to moderate a blog treating the posed question, you are of course free to set one up and do so.

  38. Gary – I think you made an interesting post, and the right decision. Chances are, the girl is travelling with her mom to visit her grandparents/dad/other loving relatives for the summer and is going to come back in time for school. Lots of my friends have been doing exactly that in the last couple of weeks: buying return tickets for themselves to Europe and one-way (or return for August) for the kids. But as a service provider, can you know for sure its legit? Bottom line is, you cannot. In fact, I think it would be right to refuse to do it for rt adult/ow kid for any country. What if that’s just child abduction? Yes, its a tiny chance – 1% or so. But do you want to chance it? Definitely not.

  39. I found the above discussion fascinating.
    Thank you, Gary, for sharing the topic openly with us. Shining a light on the ethical dilemmas we all face allows us a more thorough understanding of our biases and assumptions–and allows us to educate ourselves.

  40. All of us see the world through our own experience, have prejudices in some areas and lack information in others. Your decision is no big deal either way. Like you said, you’re not a public utility, you are free to decline her business, and the woman is free to make other arrangements.

    Having spent the last 7 years dealing with an international divorce (ex stayed in her native Germany with the kids), the one-way ticket, even to Iran, would not have triggered any alarm for me.

  41. I think you have every right to turn down a request because it I’d your business. But it is unfortunate that you associate Iran (and I am not from there) with female genital mutilation which Is common in some African countries and not Iran. Additionally there are more cases of moms running away with their kids in japan than any other country from the US. It might have helped to research the issue. So do you have a right to say no – Absolutely. Was the reason you said no correct – I don’t think so because it was based on biases that were not backed by research

  42. @Robert You gave away your own internal bias with one of your questions:
    “Do you/should you feel uneasy booking one way tickets to Israel for a family? They could be would be colonialists aiming to steal Palestinian land?”

    @Gary: I think you may have incurred a net gain of customers over this one. Always do what you know is right.

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