United Cracking Down on People Who Buy Refundable Tickets for Lounge Access and Cancel

Airlines know that people use forged boarding passes to access airport lounges they wouldn’t otherwise be entitled to use. People also buy refundable tickets for the lounge access and then refund those tickets. One man took this to such extremes that he managed to eat free for a year.

United told Zach Honig that new technology first being used in their new Chicago Polaris lounge will let them crack down on people booking qualifying tickets just for access and then cancelling and refunding those tickets once inside.

Airlines have been using new software to crack down on this practice, though, and United’s now on board, too.

The software is called AIMS. On the surface, it’s designed to enhance a customer’s experience by improving the lounge check-in process. However it also uses undisclosed technology to identify passengers that game the system by using fake boarding passes (which shouldn’t work), or those who purchase a plane ticket just to access the lounge, only to cancel it for a refund once they’re inside.

United Polaris Lounge Chicago, Credit: United

They plan to roll this out further at other lounges as well.

The company making the software helps airlines sell memberships and lounge access, as well as generate ancillary revenue from the lounge. They system helps airlines bill partners for access. They’re in 89 lounges at this point.

AIMS provides self-serve lounge check-in kiosks for Virgin Australia:

It seems to me that if you’re going to buy a refundable ticket just for the lounge access, you should:

  1. Not use that airline’s frequent flyer number (or any frequent flyer number) associated with the ticket. For a one-off that’s probably sufficient. But if you’re the type of person looking to eat free for a year in a lounge you probably don’t want to use a credit card associated with your mileage account. You may even want a separate boarding pass to clear security from the one you use to enter the lounge so that even more information can vary from what’s in the airline’s records about you.

  2. Not refund the ticket until you leave the lounge.

  3. Not use the same lounge over and over on tickets you’re cancelling day after day.

Basically the repeat offenders are the ones that will get caught most often, and there may be penalties such as closure of your mileage account or — in the case of Lufthansa — a hefty bill.

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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  1. I can’t imagine, on a global scale, many people do this. Sounds a right faff to get a cup of coffee and some snacks!

  2. My guess is the lounge benefits are often ancillary to the real purpose of the refundable ticket / fake boarding pass: to travel with, or meet up with, a real traveler who is inside security.

    Many people have infrequent travelers as family members and wish to accompany them to their gate or meet them at the gate on their arrival, and TSA makes it extremely difficult to do so (even though persons doing so would be screened identically to ordinary passengers). Thus, the “buy a refundable ticket” gambit.

    Likewise, when an infrequently-seen friend or acquaintance from out of town is transiting a local hub (and may not be willing to play TSA roulette and leave the secure zone), purchasing a ticket is often the best way to meet up.

    Once inside security, it becomes natural to use the lounge — not as a “scam” to get, what, free watery beer, but as a more comfortable place to wait for an inbound flight or to pass the time with an actual traveler.

  3. Cracking down by investing in a system to track suggests that there are actually substantial numbers of people doing this … which is shocking. It generally costs more to get to/park at the airport than the value of the food one could consume at a domestic lounge. I suppose you could get hammered drunk for free, but then you can also buy a fifth of cheap vodka (the only kind you get for free at the lounge) for $10 and do the same at home…

  4. @Justin Good point. And i dont think it would be sensible to get hammered, as you’d be in no state to cancel your ticket and an argument with TSA trying to get out!!

  5. Its interesting that this is an issue considering what a pain in the ass it is to actually get into and out of airports when flying, let alone when you’re not actually there to fly. As Justin noted they wouldn’t have made an issue out of this if there weren’t people gaming the system.

  6. I can’t believe people actually do this, especially in the US where airport lounges are crap.

  7. Is this a sign of United lounges getting better?

    The lounges were previously so lackluster that it wasn’t worth the effort for flyers to scheme their way into them. Now that some lounges have middle/upper shelf booze and decent food, they may actually entice people to game the system.

  8. “It seems to me that if you’re going to buy a refundable ticket just for the lounge access, you should:”

    How about condemning this sort of dishonest behaviour instead of offering suggestions on how to do it better?

  9. It’s unclear if this AIMS system also target those who might so the same thing in order to allow a non-traveler to get to the gate to help an elderly but othwrwise too proud to ask for help grandmother find her way to the terminal. This is one of many non-monetary reasons to game the system in this particular way.

  10. I think people may be missing the general point here. It’s not about people going to the airport to use the lounge, but rather that the new Polaris lounge is a MASSIVE upgrade over the previous offerings (and the United Club) and so United doesn’t want people tempted to book a ticket that gets them access while there for an entirely different flight.

  11. Come on, Gary. You’ve been scammed by United’s P.R. folks who invented this story — a day after the new Polaris lounge — to send the message that United lounges are so good that people are scamming their way inside. The real story — if there is a real story here — is that United is probably moving toward automated, check-in at domestic lounges as a way to reduce costs.

  12. Delta makes actual improvements while United “cracks down.” This sounds a bit like United’s upcoming foray into basic economy fares. Take something of questionable quality and declare it to be a luxury. Sure, that will get them business…

  13. Larry’s scenario makes the most sense. If I have lounge privileges on UA but am flying on a different airline that day, book a flight to be cancelled on UA and enjoy the lounge while I wait for my other flight. Rather cheeky, as the Brits say.

  14. @FNT++

    What’s more likely?:
    –the self-professed Thought Leader couldn’t think his way through this
    –that Thought Leader thinks of his readers as marks that are too dumb to figure this out


  15. So if someone does this once a year, twice a year, I doubt that United is looking for them. Many people will have reasons to cancel a ticket after getting to the lounge.

    Example: You are in the lounge and get a call that your wife/kid/mother is ill/hospitalized/dead and need to cancel your trip and refund the ticket.

    Example 2: You are headed to an event and get an email that due to weather issues the event is cancelled, so there is no longer a point in taking that flight and you cancel/refund the ticket.

    Example 3: You have a confirmed ticket out on United, but need to get where you are going sooner if possible and while in the lounge you find another airline has an earlier flight so you book that and cancel / refund the United ticket.

    United is probably looking for the people who are abusing… Doing this every week, for example.

  16. Ah these are the makers of the Virgin Australia scanners that don’t actually verify if you have a reservation or not – just that your card is valid.

    There is a reason the Sydney lounge staff refuse to let you actually enter the lounge using it…

  17. I would guess that the cost of providing lounge access would really be ancillary to the fact that the person is tying up a premium seat that will go unused and is unavailable to be sold or as an upgrade if cancelled at the last possible moment. This could literally cost the airline thousands of dollars and not the $25-50 dollars in food and drink that the actual lounge access would afford.

  18. Eric J got it. The problem is inventory management. The airlines don’t want me holding a business class reservation from 24 hours out to…say 2 hours before departure. That means they cant sell an upgrade to that seat or sell the seat outright to a high priced last minute customer. Lounge access is a problem but a small one. Someone blocking a business class seat that could otherwise be monetized is a much bigger one.

  19. Im a scammer so Im all for it. Sadly, no lounges within 500 miles of where I live, so no place I could just drive up to, LOL (I live in ND).

  20. I’m just here to learn how to game the system and get lounge access for free. Thanks, view from the wing. As if you weren’t already unethical enough, now this! Wow, and only to think this was posted more than 2 years ago! Wowzers. Unethical!

  21. I think sometimes people will do this when actually traveling but on a different airline without a lounge or on a fare that doesn’t include lounge access. I agree that the issue here is too many seats being held by people who don’t intend to travel. Adding more people to crowded lounges may also be part of the motivation to crack down.

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