Major travel agency Kinki Nippon Tourist Co. was involved in a scheme last year in which it issued cut-rate airline tickets to JET teachers, billed local governments for regular fares and pocketed the difference, it was learned Thursday.

A similar scheme was discovered at the nation’s largest travel agency, JTB Corp., which reprimanded the employees involved.

Most people in the Japan Exchange and Teaching program come to the country to teach foreign languages, although some teach sports and some assist local governments with a variety of assignments dealing with international relations.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry said it takes the matter seriously and has ordered the Japan Association of Travel Agents to probe the matter to see if the practice is common.

According to the Tokyo-based Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, which acts as mediator for the program, 3,097 people from 39 countries came to Japan between spring and summer last year under the JET program.

Four travel agencies — JTB, Kinki Nippon, Tokyu Tourist Corp. and M.O. Tourist Co. — were contracted to handle the ticket orders, with the local governments shouldering the fees.

Kinki Nippon received orders for tickets for 1,731 people. The travel agency claimed that the tickets were refundable and transferable, but in fact those for 753 people had limitations that made them cheaper, informed sources said.

Kinki Nippon officials acknowledged that the action was “inappropriate” in the sense that the tickets actually handed over were not the ones the agency was contracted to offer.

“However, we still believe that the tickets were regular-fee tickets,” according to one official.

The agency has not tallied up the total difference between the cheaper tickets and the regular air fares, but does not intend to refund the money, because the money was received as “subsidies to encourage sales,” from airlines, they said.

Meanwhile, JTB said it discovered the scam in March after being asked by CLAIR to look into the matter. Twenty-eight JET participants’ air tickets issued by JTB were discount tickets.

The price difference between the tickets that should have been issued and those that actually were amounted to some 7.24 million yen, which was refunded to the local municipalities. The two employees directly involved were reprimanded, according to JTB.

JTB officials apologized for the incident during a news conference Thursday.

“There appears to have been excessive eagerness to boost sales,” the officials said in a prepared statement, explaining that up until 2000, the tickets used for those in the JET program were business class, but that from last year, they became economy class.

“This change led to a decline in revenue, and those in charge seemed too eager to make up for the loss,” the statement said, although the officials denied the dodge was company policy.

According to the council, no such switch was found in the tickets issued via Tokyu Tourist, while the probe into M. O. Tourist is still ongoing.

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