While catching up on other news this morning I discovered this article about United and Orbitz quasi-teaming up to sue the creator of a service called Skiplagged.
For those unfamiliar, Skiplagged is a service that helps people identify cheaper flights using something called hidden city ticketing. I’ve talked about it in the past on the blog and to a number of folks. I refer to it as throwaway ticketing, because you “throw away” your last segment of the ticket you booked as the connecting city is actually your destination.
A good example I actually advised a friend on a number of years ago was a flight between Las Vegas and Washington Dulles airport. He was trying to fly his wife and kids in first class one-way but United wanted $2600 per ticket. However, using the exact same flight to Dulles and adding a segment to Rochester dropped the price to $600. It meant that they couldn’t check a bag since it would end up in Rochester, but it saved them thousands of dollars.
United and Orbitz are suing because they believe they are being harmed by folks buying cheaper tickets. They’re suing to recover the princely sum of $75,000. Incidentally, United earned just over $1 Billion in the most recent fiscal quarter, so this move looks more preventive (and punitive). And, it’s unclear whether their stated losses are their actual losses, in that some of the trips taken may not have ultimately been booked because the actual destination was too pricey for the customer to purchase, thus causing them to choose another method of transportation. It would be interesting to see a court argument by United about their damages, in that they may have to prove actual damages. After all, they do get paid to fly someone when the customer books a throwaway ticket, and I would guess it’s almost always above their marginal cost to fly another passenger.
But, are they drawing undue attention to something that’s a small problem now? This is the question that immediately popped into my head when a friend of mine sent me a different article on the same subject a bit later on in the morning. This friend keeps up on the news but doesn’t follow travel news as closely as I do, and yet he picked up on this article. How many folks like him are learning about Skiplagged today (this friend already knew about hidden city ticketing). The few times I’ve tried to access Skiplagged this morning it’s taken a while, possibly indicating higher than normal traffic.
Judging by the fact that it appears Skiplagged already surpassed a goal of raising $15,000 on their website to fight United and is well on it’s way to $20K, this is getting way more attention than United and Orbitz likely hoped for.
United and Orbitz are, in effect, teaching people about the inefficiencies in the airline ticketing system today and giving them training to exploit it!
My friend uttered rhetorically that the airlines could just fix their systems. And, that’s true. But, it’s likely a daunting task given the spaghetti of the current reservations systems, or else this likely would have been fixed already.
The airlines do police this for frequent offenders. I can recall a thread on FlyerTalk some years ago that detailed how American Airlines was handling Dallas-based frequent travelers who would use Austin as a throwaway ticket. These travelers would book their return flight to Austin with no intention of flying DFW-AUS, since they lived in Dallas. American Airlines had employees start greeting some of these passengers as they disembarked their flight in DFW and graciously offering to escort them to their Austin flight. Yikes!
It’s important to note that this type of ticketing isn’t illegal. In almost all cases where you intend not to fly a segment, you are breaking the carrier’s rules and they do have ways to discourage the behavior, like removing you from their mileage program. It’s unlikely they take such severe action if you do it infrequently.
I do like some of the comments in the lawsuit, courtesy of this Bloomberg article:
“In its simplest form, a passenger purchases a ticket from city A to city B to city C but does not travel beyond city B,” according to the companies’ complaint. “‘Hidden City’ ticketing is strictly prohibited by most commercial airlines because of logistical and public-safety concerns.”
Among their stated concerns is United’s resultant inability to count passengers, which can cause departure delays and affect fuel load computations.
I really would like to understand the public-safety concerns here. Is United actually contending that someone using a throwaway ticket and not boarding a flight is harder to count than someone who missed the flight for any other reason? Frankly, anyone that can’t count the number of people on a plane accurately shouldn’t be in the business of transporting people.
If United only put this sort of effort into fixing the parts of their airline that are unbelievably broken, I might not be finding plenty of excuses to fly other airlines.
Hidden city/throwaway ticketing won’t be fixed anytime soon. But, it’s unlikely extra attention will cause it to be around longer.
Don’t miss any of the daily travel tips, tricks and strategies found here. Follow me using one of these options: