The airline is imaginary. But we'll overlook that for the moment.
All we want to know is whether the offer from "U.S. Airlines" or "United Airways" is real.
Their post cards do not include a return address, but they do boast something enticing: an ‘award' that includes airline tickets worth up to $1,398.
Our goal is simple: to learn whether anyone ever gets a free airfare.
The journey is not complete. But we've already had quite a ride and made several important discoveries that are worth sharing in the meantime.
After receiving one of the fliers by mail, we dialed the toll-free number on it. A harried operator got the ball rolling.
The conversation lasted 13 minutes, 13 seconds. During that time, he repeatedly assured me that the award was "complimentary."
The agent noted that to obtain my two airline tickets, I'd need to attend a 90-minute sales presentation about travel. He went out of his way to say it wasn't a timeshare sales pitch.
We agreed to listen for 90 minutes. And we made a reservation for the following week.
NO THANK YOU
Our quest for our complimentary airline tickets led us to a small business park in Palm Harbor. Once inside the one-story brick building on Alt. 19, we were escorted to a small room with 15 or 20 chairs and one empty whiteboard.
For the next 90 minutes, a dozen of us listened as a salesman named George tried to sell us a travel club. He filled our ears with comparisons to Costco and filled the board with jargon and numbers.
Abruptly he stopped.
Just when we thought it was over and our 90-minute commitment was fulfilled, George escorted the entire group to a noisy and cramped area where individual salespeople continued the sales pitch.
For another 30 minutes we repeatedly said, "no, thank you" and requested our airline tickets.
Finally, after more than two hours in the vacation club offices, we emerged.
But we did not have airline tickets.
The club receptionist provided us with a form printed on ordinary brown paper. To redeem it, we had to mail it to a post office box in Pennsylvania.
That only led to another form.
This one, glossy and a little more detailed than the first, must also be submitted by mail. And, it requires $4.95 to begin processing. We're told this ‘voucher' will lead to a packet that will contain booking instructions.
Ultimately, these vouchers come from and return to Prestige Travel Systems in Tampa. Prestige President Ron Lascala insisted the vouchers can be redeemed for airline tickets – if people follow the steps and pay their share.
"They fly," he said.
Lascala said he sells the vouchers to travel marketing companies. He distanced himself from the companies that send the "United Airways" and "U.S. Airlines" fliers that start the solicitation.
"Our company does no mailers whatsoever," he said.
FREE FARE, NOT FEES
When we pressed Lascala about fees, he said his company charges $59 per ticket on top of the $4.95 fee required to mail in the form.
Lascala then pointed out that the voucher only covers base airfare – not government taxes and fees. Language to that effect is also indicated on the flip side of the initial flier.
Government taxes, airport fees, and security charges vary by route, but they can easily top $50 per passenger, according to multiple searches FOX 13 executed using the ITA Matrix, an airfare research tool offered by Google.
Ultimately, our pair of "complimentary" tickets could cost hundreds of dollars.
Although we are relentlessly jumping through hoops and shelling out money to get our "complimentary" tickets, Lascala conceded that 75 percent of people who receive his company's voucher never redeem it.
He also admitted that his business hinges on most people giving up.
"It's very much like an insurance company," he said. "If I sold you an insurance policy and everybody died next week, I'd be out of business."
THE COURT CASE
The ‘free' ticket fliers that often feature the names of fake airlines have rankled one real air carrier: American Airlines.
"This is a nationwide scam," said American Airlines spokeswoman Stacey Frantz.
American is now suing several "travel club" companies and their associates, including Prestige Travel Systems in Tampa.
American's suit is blunt and plain-spoken, claiming the fliers are "intentionally confusing" to consumers, and that some of the vouchers use its name and logo without authorization.
"American Airlines has absolutely no relationship with the folks who are running what we are calling a scam," Frantz said.
The airline says the entire process (the fliers, the forms, the sales presentations, the vouchers, and the fees) are "intentional hurdles" to ensure virtually no one is able to fly for free.
"[It's] something you can never use," Frantz said.
Lascala, of Prestige Travel Systems, said he was unaware of the American Airlines suit against his firm. When we broke news of it to him, he said he was stunned.
In addition to the lawsuit, a spokesman for the Florida Attorney General's Office said Prestige Travel Systems is under investigation.
No other details were immediately available.
NOT GIVING UP
We will continue to push for our free ticket. We will follow directions. We will pay whatever fees they require. And we will abide by their restrictions.
We want those tickets.
Since these fliers are pervasive, we remain committed to determining whether they're a good deal for anyone— especially you.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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