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. Jeff,

    For me to have an opinion for or against arranged marriage, to pick an example among others, is not another “internal bias? The question is rather that of being aware that one’s perspective is a perspective, reflecting upon that perspective, comparing it to other possible perspectives, weighing its relative merits, assuming responsibility for it should it be the best perspective on offer, and consequently reasonably applying it and reasonably defending it. For you to pick out and suggest that Israeli colonialisation is my only concern, is a testament to nothing more and nothing less than your true interest. Whereas my interests, as evident in the post, are many and diverse.

  2. Gary, I definitely agree that if a request makes you feel uncomfortable, you shouldn’t do it. But based on the little you described, I don’t think the request would have raised any red flags to me. I guess the only Iranians I know are from the Westernized/modern segment of society, and it would not occur to me that the mere act of sending a child to Iran, even permanently, would be putting the child in harm’s way. Then again, I didn’t see the full correspondence between you and the mother, so I don’t know if there’s something else about it that makes it look fishy. As others have mentioned, gut feelings are important.

  3. Gary, it’s not completely implausible that your would-be client might even be acting under duress and might herself be thankful if you were to quietly but quickly turn over her information to the State department, FBI, homeland security, child protective services, etc.

    As for the scenario of the mother genuinely intending to abduct the child to Iran, I doubt the argument that it couldn’t be child abduction against the father’s wishes because, in Iran, foreign fathers supposedly have more rights in these matters citizen women, because I wonder if this applies in practice to men who doubt the safety of traveling to Iran to exercise these rights or cases where the mother’s family is politically well connected.

    If you announced publicly that you had turned over this information to government agencies, I don’t think it would discourage me from doing business with you in the future (although I haven’t so far), and I also think you’d be morally justified in doing so secretly.

  4. Wow your actions to ask the public for this show some pretty sad biases..

    Let me first start by saying that you indeed are not a public utility and are a private citizen, therefore I FULLY agree that you have the absolute right to accept or reject whatever request comes your way.

    As has been stated before, that the mother has enough knowledge and passion to collect miles and want to use them intelligently would imply to me that she isn’t likely to do something as ignorant and cruel as this, let alone alert anyone else to her intentions. One would need to be literate and compatible with the modern complexities of financial life and travel. Paying for the actual ticket would probably be a much safer bet to keep this on the down low, LOL!

    Next, if a mother so chooses to move her child to her homeland – and in a frugal way haha – for the summer or for her whole childhood, what is wrong with that? A parent the worldover regardless of race or nationality is generally entrusted to care for and make decisions for their minor child, and I believe that is ethically correct until they are PROVEN of any wrongdoing. If a Ukrainian mom wants to fly her 8 yr old girl from LA to live with or visit her father or extended family in Kiev I see no issue with that. Yes there have been cases of female forced prostitution and slavery in Eastern Europe but that isn’t going to bias my initial opinion, especially if she’s asking a fella to give her advice on using her miles haha.

    If anything your public soul-searching displayed in this post indicated a sense of guilt (rightly-so in my opinion) which you are seeking to overcome…

    Yes, I also believe your position judges both Iranian culture and Islam quite heavily. It implies some form of extreme ignorance where you’d believe that a random Iranian WOMAN would use frequent flier miles to dump her daughter in some dark pit to PURPOSELY have her “subjugated”. Leave alone religion, you are assuming she is able to internally reconcile an international multi-leg flight plus the use of accumulated miles to have her daughter be miserable – BECAUSE SHE IS IRANIAN. Might as well do it frugally right?
    And to assume that Islam has anything to do with this… Iran is not Islam and Islam is not Iran…having 1.4+ billion followers spanning dozens of countries…i’m speechless. I myself am a Muslim with MANY MANY female relatives still LIVING in Muslim countries or here in the US…All will say their background without hesitation and many go to regular mosque services. Not ONE has ever even BROUGHT UP the topic of FGM, never even thought of it really. I myself have only first heard of it from occasional random news stories regarding East Africa. So assuming that the child is being sent to have her genitals mutilated is just a pitifully horrendous small minded assumption that shows amazing ignorance and bias, potentially intentional…

    More stuff like this and who knows, maybe it’s “View from the (right)Wing”…

    Kudos to you Robert and Roxanne, among others for speaking some logic…

  5. A savvy, mile – earning frequent flyer Iranian woman tries to purchase first award tickets for her and her daughter, Soon the FBI is breaking down her door. Why? Bec some people have paranoid prejudices and biases. Is it not enough that you are discriminating on this poor woman? Must you make her life hell too by being investigated by the FBI?

    Admit that you are biased and move on, we are all a little bit racist anyway, but going one step further, puts your actions on the henious realm.

  6. I first read this and were only 5 comments. Now it is 54, wow!

    In business you need to make decisions every day. I learned from my first boss that when you feel your blood pressure goes up when a client calls you better let him go it is just not worth it, life is too short. In your case, you clearly feel uncomfortable doing this so you move on.

    I am not sure it warranted a separate blog post…but, hey, it’s your blog and you do as you please!

    I am sure there is a very valid and proper explanation for this request. I know several Iranians here in the US and I find them all very bright with a high work ethic and they ALL really hate the Iranian clerics running (ruining?) their country.

    I found the “women subjugation” and genital mutilation” (especially) to be ludicrous but I fully appreciate you expressing your feelings and asking (gutsy) for feedback.

    Hey, my 2 cents, you asked for it.

  7. I commend your forward looking decision on this. We have an obligation to do what’s in the best interest of those we serve (particularly a child). In this case you had a choice based upon the information at that point and you nailed it in my opinion.

  8. this person presented u with $$$$, take the $$$$ and run. Morals and ethics will never make u rich; the appearance of them might but not their practice. Is not the goal to make as much money as possible however you can? Otherwise you will be a faliure, without the guts to do what has to be done to get ahead, besides someone else will just do it anyways.

  9. After this post, you have lost a loyal reader.. your prejudices really digust me.. thought you and your readers were better than this, just a reminder of how ignorant our country remains. Shame on you!

  10. You did the right thing. As you said – you make the decision based on the information you have. End of story.
    And to the take the $$$ and run comment – really? Wow.

  11. One easy way to look more deeply into it would be to tell the customer that a RT ticket is a more economical use of miles even if the return is well into the future. Customer might then offer up why she wanted a one way ticket.

    Brining Islam into this is really a bad idea, Islam has little to do with any of the situation in Iran, other than the radicals causing humanitarian problems happen to be that religion. I know many Muslims who abhor the behavior of radicals and who assert what many of us feel about Islam, that it is a peaceful religion twisted by radicals to incite violence.

  12. @disappointed so I should have lied as a more ethical response, even though I have no way to evaluate the veractiy of whatever response I actually received?

    Folks, I have no issue doing awards for Iranians. My issue was a one-way ticket for an 8-year old girl to a dictatorial regime that subjugates women. The mother wanted to take her daughter there and leave her, and on the basis of that limited amount of information I was uncomfortable.

    I would have always wondered what happened to the girl, I’d have little way to really know, and I decided not to be a part of the booking. That is all…

  13. Gary, while I can not deny that you had the right to refuse her business for any reason, the reasons you outlined in your email above were seriously uninformed. FGM in Iran? Come on…

  14. You might want to read this quote from Homi Bhabha

    “Fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition. Likewise the stereotype, which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place’, already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated….as if the essential duplicity of the Asiatic or the bestial sexual license of the African that needs no proof, can never really, in discourse, be proved. It is this process of ambivalence that gives the colonial stereotypes its currency: ensures its repeatability in changing historical and discursive conjunctures; informs its strategies of individuation and marginalization; produces that effect of probabilistic truth and predictability which, for the stereotype, must always be in excess of what can be empirically proved or logically construed.”

    The rest of it is available here=> Bhabha, Screen 24.6, 1983, pg 18

  15. @Maithili utter gibberish and non-germaine, has nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘discourse of colonialism’ but rather of a dictatorial state that enforces gender discrimination. Wrapping up a defense of Iran in language of so-called liberation is in and of itself the use of language to advance oppression. Shame on you!

  16. @Nabeel tell that to the Committee Against Sexual Violence in Iran’s Kurdish region. But FGM was simply a hypothetical example, as I thought and hoped I had made clear.

  17. I’ve thought about this post overnight, and Yes, you have a right to choose your clients, but I really feel like you made a premature call on this one.

  18. I was going to add some additional comments to my earlier post, but then I looked at myself in the mirror!

  19. I wonder if there is a travel agent blogger in Iran right now, advising a parent not to take their kid to the US for fear that the litter bugger will get shot in the streets of LA, or become unhealthy from eating the KFC Double-Down in Dayton, etc. Face it folks, everyplace has something crappy & dangerous about it! Thanks Gary for bringing this conundrum – I appreciate the guts and I personally have no problem with your call. I promise I will bring you some business someday to make up for the drop-offs!

  20. Gary-

    I think we would all appreciate it if you would send a link to this discussion to the mother involved, and invite her to add to it.

  21. This only proves one thing. Experience of traveling around the world doesn’t necessarily make people more open-minded.

  22. @Gary Steiger: Even though your idea is great and would make this thread even more colorful, I am afraid that (based on my very limited legal knowledge) it may be an invitation to her and her lawyer to sue based on discrimination grounds?? Any lawyers here? That is why I avoid politics and religion in my online public endeavors…just a can of worms.

    And this was my 3rd cent.

  23. If you are going to impose your personal ethics on help it behooves you to disclose the limits in bold letters.

  24. Gary-

    Just let us know how many “loyal readers” like Chris you lose, and I’ll make it my personal mission to replace them.

  25. There is one point I haven’t seen raised here. It is against US law for one parent to take a child out of the country without the other parent’s permission. So there is nothing wrong in making sure she has the father’s permission and asking why the child is flying only one-way.

    As long as no one is breaking the law there is no ethics issue. As for the moral issue, as we see from this thread, it’s becomes very complicated.

  26. @Tom I don’t buy legal positivism, there are plenty of things that are illegal but not immoral, and plenty of things that are immoral but not illegal. My fear wasn’t that the woman lacked the father’s permission, but precisely that she had that permission, might have been leaving the girl WITH the father in Iran.

  27. Gary,
    I agree with you. I think you should use the same decision for anyone who is buying a RT for themselves and 1W for the child, to any destination. If it’s legitimate, the parent should have explained in the initial request (odd that you don’t hear back). And you should request proof of consent from the other parent. Without proof, I would not book even if it’s domestic travel.

  28. Very difficult decision here, and a genuine thanks for sharing your conundrum! I would have called the mother and asked some questions that were mentioned above – asked for the father’s permission, mentioned that you can do a R/T award (and listen for an explanation of why she doesn’t want it), etc. Then you could get a better feel for what was going on. At that point, I would even sheepishly admit that with the information that’s being shown on American TV, I am less than thrilled to send a girl to Iran. An uncomfortable conversation to be sure. I would be very embarrassed to deny the booking service to this mother just based on preconceived notions. Now she’s going to think you’re denying her because she’s Muslim/Iranian, which will perhaps reinforce beliefs she may already have about how welcome she is in the United States. I would go with the most likely scenario, which is an innocent one. I base this on the knowledge I have of a few Iranian people, and as an Eastern European immigrant. You seem to want to eliminate any chance of anything nefarious going on, all the while (possibly) denying this girl a summer of fun with her cousins.

  29. I’m proud of you Gary.

    As a person born in the US and into a Muslim family, I grew up in a dichotomy of the two very different cultures, and would have done the same, if only for the “non-equal” treatment of the genders, if I may say it that way. Regardless of whatever opinion or bias, you’re running a private business and have whatever reason you wish to refuse selling your services at any time for any reason–Sharing your personal thoughts with us due to the ethical nature of the situation only adds to the respect I have for individuals such as yourself who could easily make a few bucks on this but hold themselves to a higher standard instead of succumbing to the allure of the mighty dollar.

    My $0.02.

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