In the last decade, tech-savvy travelers have engaged in airline booking ploys to avoid excessive ticket prices. Recently, a number of sites have offered one such strategy known as “hidden-city ticketing.” The concept is quite simple. The buyer purchases a cheaper ticket to a destination that requires at least one layover. Generally, these tickets are cheaper than a straight flight to a destination. However, instead of completing the trip the passenger intends to get off at the layover airport. Therefore, they are essentially purchasing a straight flight for the price of a layover flight.
For example if a passenger is traveling from San Francisco to Chicago, with no lay-over, the price may be $1,000. However, if they purchase a ticket from San Francisco to New York, with a layover in Chicago, the ticket may be only $400 dollars, saving the person $600 if they get off in Chicago anyway. In fact, hundreds of passengers have used this technique and the savvy flyers, often businessmen and women, only use hidden-city ticketing a couple times a year to avoid detection.
The disadvantages are that a passenger must buy only a one-way ticket and cannot check any luggage. However, there is an exception to this problem. If a passenger is on an international flight where customs is required to take the bags off of the flight to process them. This is the case even at a layover and, therefore, passenger can reclaim their luggage and exit the layover airport. It is also important to take in to consideration that the passenger may face the risk of the initial flight being overbooked, delayed, or cancelled which may result in the layover city, the intended destination, being bypassed.
Why Do the Companies Care?
Hidden-city ticketing is highly controversial and, recently, United Airlines and Orbitz have filed a lawsuit against 22-year old, Aktarer Zaman and his website skiplagged.com. The lawsuit is intended to bar travelers from purchasing tickets that cut into their profits and sales, even though these companies have annual profits in the billions.
Much to the dismay of companies like United and Orbitz, the practice of hidden-city ticketing is not illegal and no criminal charges can be brought against the purchasers of the tickets, nor any company that sells and promotes the hidden city tickets, like Aktarer Zaman or skiplagged.com. However, these companies are attempting to bring a lawsuit in civil court for breach of contract against airline rules. It is important to note however, that bringing a lawsuit is relatively easy and is no indication that it is warranted or will result in any damages.
In the current lawsuit, both United and Orbitz claim that the strategy violates rules against “unfair competition” and encourage “strictly prohibited” travel. In the lawsuit, they claim that skipplagged.com and its founder “intentionally and maliciously” interfered with airline industry business relationships “by promoting prohibited forms of travel.”
They also argue that the practice is unethical and paramount to stealing as well as cite logistical and public-safety concerns, including inadequate counting of passengers, departure delays and the miscalculation of fuel load computations.
Although not stated specifically in the complaint, there have been concerns about national security. Obviously, if a person disappears before arriving to their destination, this could be cause for concern, given the rise in terrorist activities. However, thus far, the government has not been involved.
What Are the Consequences for Buying a “Hidden-City” Ticket?
If done infrequently, there are likely to be no consequences, because the airlines do not have the resources to pursue the violation of their rules. However, some of the more frequent travelers may lose, or be threatened with the loss, of their frequent flyer miles.
Airlines are also recently threatening to confiscate tickets, issue fines and bill the travel agents for the fare difference. However, unless they win the lawsuit the airlines may have a more difficult time following through with their threats.
Passengers argue that they bought the ticket and have a right to get off the plane whenever they want. Airlines still set the prices and it is not the passengers’ fault if some tickets are lower than others. Some critics also argue that passengers have a right to save money and, of course airlines and big business disagree even the high ticket prices are oppressive in nature.
Although, Aktarer Zaman has significant public support and has raised over $50,000 in legal fees, he is bound to be crushed by the resources airlines hold and may not be able to fight the lawsuit, even if has no merit. This is often the case when high-profit corporations sue smaller businesses or individuals. The attempts to shut down skiplagged.com is a perfect example of how big business is actually hurting the economy, by preventing young entrepreneurs from forming successful businesses.