American Airlines Confronts Passenger At The Airport, Sends Them $1000 Bill For Ticketing Abuses

Last month I wrote about American Airlines confronting a reader over throwaway ticketing when he arrived at the airport. He was told that he had better fly all of the segments in his itinerary that day, and that American would be watching.

Instead, the reader got off of his flight to Philadelphia and went home, never taking the last flight on his reservation. He booked the ticket this way because it was $25 cheap than buying a non-stop flight to Philadelphia, a trick he’s employed several times.

As promised, American flagged him, suspended his account – and demanded restitution for past instances of throwaway ticketing. I warned over the summer they were cracking down. Here’s the message American sends:

As an analyst with American Airlines, one of my responsibilities is investigating violations of the General AAdvantage® Program Conditions. An audit of your AAdvantage account, determined that you have engaged in the practice known as ‘Hidden City ticketing’; the purchase of a fare to a point beyond your actual destination. Hidden city ticketing is explicitly defined in AA’s Conditions of Carriage as a violation of ticket validity. The Terms and Conditions of the AAdvantage program further state that compliance with the Conditions of Carriage is compulsory for participation in the AAdvantage program. As such, AAdvantage account [Redacted], is restricted, pending the outcome of our investigation. You may review the terms and conditions of the AAdvantage ® program (several parts of the terms and conditions are noted below) by clicking the link below or by copying and pasting it into your browser.

The audit of your account [Redacted] was completed on [Date]. The following reservations were not issued in compliance with the AAdvantage Terms & Conditions, Conditions of Carriage or AA.com Site Usage policy:

(Spreadsheet of Hidden City Flights Booked And Prices Paid)

Not unlike other commodities, airline seats are market priced. A seat on a non-stop flight is a premium product and commands a higher price. Seats in connecting markets must be priced competitively and hence can be substantially cheaper. The ill-effects of point beyond ticketing are two-fold; the customer receives the flight for a price for which they aren’t entitled and a seat is spoiled on the separate connecting flight. An airline ticket constitutes a contract and the terms of that contract are stated explicitly in the Conditions of Carriage. Please see excerpts below.

[Name], these actions have resulted in clear and considerable losses to American Airlines. In addition to our loss for the travel provided, tickets booked through prohibited practices are considered fraudulent, and therefore not eligible to accrue mileage. In this case, our loss is further compounded through the Elite mileage accruals, benefits, and services used that were not otherwise available. Generally, violations of this nature subject the AAdvantage account to termination. However, we are willing to provide you with an opportunity to restore an equitable relationship through restitution for the loss on your identified travel.

You may respond to this message by [Date and Time] stating you would like to bring your account back to good standing. At that time, the segments will be re-priced based on your intended travel and we will send you the information so that you may make the appropriate reimbursement for the travel provided. Failure to return the account to good standing or to reply, will result in the termination of your AAdvantage® membership and all its benefits, including all remaining AAdvantage® miles in your account and any award tickets issued from it.

Regards,

In this case the member has Platinum status, accrued miles, and lives in an American Airlines hub city. And American Airlines is asking for… $1000.

If he’s able to pay this frankly seems cheap, and as though it probably costs American as much to try to collect on it as they’ll recoup if he pays.

Ultimately hidden city ticketing and throwaway ticketing is not illegal, but it’s against airline rules. I recommend against using your frequent flyer number. Credit to a different partner airline. You can still be tracked, but why make it easier for the airline?

United Airlines threatened to trash the credit of customers who skip flights by sending them to collections. With most airlines things don’t go that far, and even United doesn’t really want to get into the legal entanglements that would involve.

Still, this may be tempting to do when the savings are significant. I’ve seen cases where the difference is over $1000. I’d give it a miss over $25. And if the airline confronts you at the airport over it? Fly to your final ticketed destination, and then catch a new flight home.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. First hidden city article I’ve read on this blog with no link to the New York Times ethicist saying it’s fine.

  2. Amazing how a clear breech of the CoC can be fixed for $1,000 while AA went nuclear over FF accounts that signed up for “too many” CCs.

  3. I think this member is fortunate.

    AA wants restitution as a compromise not as a legal remedy. As far as paying the difference between the fare paid and the going fare for the trip to the hidden city, I would hope airlines have the good sense to include appropriate remedy calculating language in their contracts of carriage.

  4. Well, that isn’t so bad. Paying $1,000 vs losing his status; if the individual values his miles and status, he should fork over the money.

    Want to play loose with the rules, be ready to lose. I’ve done hidden city ticketing before, but always without associating my FFN to my flights (back when I had status).

    At the end of the day, people have a choice: follow the rules or face consequences. Don’t like the rules? Find an alternative or try to have them legitimately changed. Plenty of rules and conditions exists that are not consumer/customer friendly, but until some other company comes along and does things differently, everyone should stick with the rules.

  5. American shows its true colors here. Its all about revenue. Welp.

    I highly doubt one open seat resulted in “clear and considerable losses” to American.

    Its 2021 and American is too cheap to install screens in seat backs. If you don’t offer live TV like Delta and jetBlue your product isn’t competitive.

    The pax experience is equivalent to Southwest, plus excessive bag fees.

  6. Would 100% tell AA to kick rocks. If I had tons of miles in my account, I might offer to promise to never do it again in exchange for unlocking my account (which I’d abide by), but there’s no chance at all that I’d actually fork over a dime.

  7. I’m impressed that AA’s email makes a very coherent and reasoned argument against the practice. It’s not just a “you broke the rule pay the penalty”email.

    You don’t have to agree with their argument to appreciate them treating their customers as rational adults, something the government never does when you break one of their rules.

  8. You provide lots of great advice and info, Gary, but I am disturbed by this paragraph: “Ultimately hidden city ticketing and throwaway ticketing is not illegal, but it’s against airline rules. I recommend against using your frequent flyer number. Credit to a different partner airline. You can still be tracked, but why make it easier for the airline?”

    In effect, you are acknowledging the rules while giving advice on how to avoid (or delay) getting caught when you break them. I don’t read your blogs to be learn how to cheat.

  9. It’s kind of hilarious seeing this petty stuff play out. Feels like a McDonald’s watching customers to make sure they finish their drink when the meal deal is cheaper than just the burger and fries.

  10. Some airline should welcome Hidden City and figure out a way for people to acknowledge what they are doing, and figure out how to resell/donate the leftover segment(s). Do it at time of booking.

  11. Maybe I don’t fully understand this but even though the last leg of the flight was flown with an empty seat, wasn’t the seat paid for? And didn’t that provide an opportunity to fill the seat with another (standby and paid for) body? What exactly did the airline lose in the process? Not mentioned, but wouldn’t any checked luggage have gone ahead without him?

    It’s almost like if AA had tried to fine me when, wanting to fly from Pittsburgh to Miami, instead I drove north to Cleveland to get a cheaper fare on the same flight number from there to Miami, and which had a stopover in Pittsburgh. I saved about $400 for two fares. I also didn’t return of the same flight, getting off in Pittsburgh because I’d have to have driven to Cleveland to get my luggage.

  12. So the follow-up here is that AA followed through and suspended his account? Did their demand for restitution include legal action, or a threat of that?

  13. Those thinking AA is wrong here don’t understand airline pricing and the rules around ticketing. This is clearly against their rules. You may try to moralize it or act like AA is wrong (or petty) but the fact is the passenger deliberately broke the rules (even after AA warned him). They can do anything they want with his account and status (or even file a suit to collect the difference).

    BTW this is just directed at him – it is to deter others from doing the same. If you don’t like it don’t fly AA but I applaud them for taking this step to enforce their rules.

  14. for $25 savings this was stupid on this guy’s part. the rules of the airlines regarding hidden ticketing are stupid and should be outlawed by the Govt. If one chooses to do this the airline loses not a dime. the customer paid for that seat. It was paid for whether or not his butt was in it.

  15. The reason AA only ever threatens your frequent flyer account is that they know they would lose litigation on hidden-city ticketing practices.

  16. “Chad Buttkissplantsfood says:
    January 9, 2021 at 12:38 pm
    Feels like a McDonald’s watching customers to make sure they finish their drink when the meal deal is cheaper than just the burger and fries.”

    Best Analogy Award 2020

  17. @SeanNY2 – seconded! Go ahead and close the books on “best analogy 2021” 9 days into the year because no one’s gonna beat this.

    (Written from an undisclosed location; I bought a big bottle of ketchup that was cheaper than two small ones, but part of it went bad and I’m hiding so Heinz doesn’t come and ban me)

  18. CW says: “I bought a big bottle of ketchup that was cheaper than two small ones, but part of it went bad and I’m hiding so Heinz doesn’t come and ban me.”

    Hilarious and reminds me of an incident from my university days. Each day the cafeteria had a $5 lunch special featuring an entree, small drink, side and dessert. I got it every day but one day I grabbed a medium drink (10 cents more than the small). I asked the cashier if she could just charge me $5.10 but she scowled at me, pointed to the sign saying “No Substitutions” and started entering all the items individually. The scowl fell from her face when the registered displayed the total: $4.78.

  19. How can the airline enforce this part of the contract of carriage, yet not issue cash refunds for cancellation of flights due to covid as spelled out in the contract of carriage and DOT rules?
    Airlines should not be able to pick and choose when the rules apply to them.
    Also why doesnt this hidden city airline logic of lost revenue still apply if the passenger did not show up for any of his segments and missed all the flights?
    Would he now owe the airline more money then he paid for the ticket for that same lost revenue on all segments?

  20. If the rules are part of a contract between the traveler and the airline, aren’t they governed by contract law?

  21. Hidden city ticketing and the pricing model around it is constructed to assist airlines in adapting to dynamic market pricing. They are of course used to be beneficial to the airline to help make a profit. That said, when one purchases a ticket, there’s an implied agreement they won’t resell a segment of your trip when a more profitable scenario arises. They effectively lock in a price/contract. And in exchange, they expect the customer to follow through with their commitment to fly the agreed upon route.

    While there can be a fair debate about the legitimacy of hidden city ticketing, I would also note Southwest typically charges tickets by segment, so it can be more costly than a direct flight. Fundamentally though, the entire industry needs to rework their pricing model to have any substantial change in modifying hidden city ticketing practices, and I just don’t see that happening.

    The airlines have the data, the calculations, the experience, and the people who spend all their time forecasting and calculating what works for them. So I suspect they have sufficient data/experience to justify continuing their rules on hidden city ticketing.

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