United Warns Employees After Firing 35+ For Selling ‘Buddy Pass’ Perks

Mar 7, 2019

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“Everyone does it. At all airlines. Literally everyone.” So what is… “it”… exactly? Selling non-revenue “buddy pass” travel benefits, apparently, at least according to one United employee, who shared this slightly tongue-in-cheek anecdote on the condition of anonymity.

As United recently warned staff in a detailed account of fraud and theft, sometimes the airline wises up, and workers get caught. And, after having an opportunity to plead their cases and clarify the record, they’re out of a job.

Here’s how United chose to explain the results of its latest investigation to staff this week:

Selling pass travel privileges: not OK

United employees at the gate noticed something fishy about a particular group of nine non-revenue pass riders. The three families, who were traveling internationally, stated that they had “paid for” first class tickets — but they were on non-revenue reservations and were unable to provide the names of the employees who had provided the tickets.

Thanks to the station personnel’s quick thinking, a representative from each family was asked to provide a written statement. In those statements, they noted that they had paid between $3,500 and $4,000 per person for one year’s worth of domestic and international travel on United. After the nine would-be pass riders were denied boarding, they purchased last-minute revenue tickets to travel that same day.

Corporate Security initiated an investigation and ultimately not only identified the employees who had listed the nine individuals as their eligible pass riders, but uncovered a brokering scheme where employees were soliciting pass travel privileges from their colleagues to put up for sale.

The investigation showed that some of the employees involved had presented fake documentation in order to falsely list travelers as their stepparents or domestic partners. Some had solicited enrolled friend status and buddy passes from their colleagues to sell to third parties, leveraging their relationship and trust with their colleagues or their position within United to broker the deals. Some of the employees who gave up their passes received payment, while others were deceived into giving away their pass travel privileges based on the pretext that the passes were for a good friend or a relative (although even that would be against the rules).

Ultimately, more than 35 employees lost their jobs for brokering pass travel privileges, profiting from the sale of their pass travel privileges, listing ineligible individuals as relatives or providing pass travel to unknown individuals. Some claimed that they believe that what they were doing was OK, since they had pass travel privileges that weren’t being used. A quick read-through of the Pass Travel Guidelines would have told them otherwise and could have prevented them from being fired.

Your pass travel privileges are intended for use only by you and your friends or family members. While you can reimbursed by your pass riders for any taxes, fees and imputed income for their travel, charging above that amount is not allowed — and selling pass travel or trading for goods or services isn’t either.

While this memo, which was provided to us by a source within the airline, is a lot to digest, it’s refreshing to see the airline offering a bit more transparency, especially around a topic as sensitive as corporate security investigations. As United explained to TPG, “Enjoying flying privileges is a unique and special advantage of working at an airline, and it is intended only for our employees and their friends and family. We have clear rules on flying privileges so we can all fairly enjoy this benefit.”

In my opinion, it seems clear that United hopes to discourage other employees from following suit — in addition to the lost revenue from non-compliant pass travel, it’s incredibly costly to recruit and train pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents and other workers only to fire a few dozen for breaking the rules.

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