“Hidden city ticketing” involves booking a flight to a city beyond the one you want to travel to, in order to get a lower fare. You might book Washington DC – Charlotte – Jacksonville when you just want to go to Charlotte, because the fare to Jacksonville is lower. You get off the plane in Charlotte and ‘throw away’ the next flight.
- You can only do this with the last segment of your ticket because the airline will cancel the rest of your ticket when you don’t show up for a flight
- You can’t do this in most cases with checked bags, or else your bags will go to the final city on your itinerary – and you’re not going to go there to pick them up.
This is not illegal, but it’s against airline rules. There are several risks involved, including if a plane is full there might not be enough overhead bin space for your carry on and are asked to gate check your bag to your final destination (don’t be last to board!) or if your flight is delayed or cancelled the airline may want to book you through a different hub (I’ve never had an issue getting my preferred re-routing).
Doing this once or twice has never been a big deal. Doing this often has led to problems for travel agencies (debit memo) and for flyers (risk of being banned by the airline, or having a frequent flyer account shut down).
One way to minimize risk is to give a partner airline’s frequent flyer account when traveling on a hidden city ticket, or none at all, though even that isn’t a foolproof way of protecting your mileage account because at a minimum you’re giving your full name, gender, and date of birth to book a ticket. A determine airline can match that up.
One flyer shared his experience being contacted by American Airlines over 52 instances of hidden city ticketing. His frequent flyer account was locked and American demanded payment for the revenue they’d lost.
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 XXXXXX 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 XXXXXwas completed on August xx, 2020. The following reservations were not issued in compliance with the AAdvantage Terms & Conditions, Conditions of Carriage or AA.com Site Usage policy:
52 HIDDEN CITY TICKETS (Included each one of the flights they believe is a hidden city ticket)
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.
Mr.XXXXX, 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 3pm, CST, Friday, August 31, 2020 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.
The customer is an American Airlines million miler with ten years of top tier elite status and 600,000 miles in their account. So the loss of having their account shut down is huge.
Here’s the striking thing: American asked only $2500 to restore the account, with apparently no forfeiture of miles. That’s just $48 per flight they’re accused of taking with a hidden city routing. The customer certainly would have saved more than this on average or they wouldn’t have been doing it.
There are two points here.
- They’re not moving to ban the customer for breaking rules.
- They’re offering a cash settlement amount and the amount is downright reasonable under the circumstances.
This seems clearly designed to collect $2500, more than to punish to scare others out of the practice. It’s unclear whether there’s a ramp up in enforcement against hidden city tickets, and whether that’s related to the pandemic, but the low settlement offer does seem to stand out since it suggests a greater interest in revenue capture than in most of the enforcement efforts I’m familiar with.
Right now airlines will take any money they can, and employees may be looking for metrics and wins to justify their jobs, so it doesn’t surprise me – whether corporate policy or individual initiative – to see the airline going after violations that can extract incremental revenue, and to do it in a way that maximizes likelihood of payment.
[…] the summer I wrote about American directly investigating customers for ticketing practices that violate the airline’s rules, and more recently confronting […]