United and Orbitz Sue to Crackdown on Site That Helps Consumers Save Money on Airfare

Regular readers know that throwaway and hidden city ticketing is a technique that can be used to save thousands of dollars on airfare.

It’s not illegal (and the New York Times “Ethicist” endorses it), but it’s generally against airline rules, and there are some basic practices you need to follow to make sure you or your bags don’t wind up in the wrong city!

  • You’re buying a ticket from A to B to C, where A to C is cheaper than buying A to B, but getting off in B.
  • You can’t check bags or else they will go to C.
  • In the event of weather or cancellations, an airline may want to reroute you to C via a different connecting city (“D”).

Airlines see themselves as selling you a ticket from A to C, rather than a seat on a plane for A-B and also B-C where you have the right not to sit in the B-C seat.

For the last year a website called SkipLagged has been able to automate the process of finding routes for you to book that can save you money through this hidden city technique.

I’m surprised it’s taken this long, but United and Orbitz are now suing the site.

According to a report by Bloomberg, the complaints are based on unauthorized linking to their websites, and unfair business practices.

Among those concerns, according to the complaint, is United’s resultant inability to estimate flight passenger counts which can cause departure delays and affect fuel load computations.

Orbitz, an online travel booking site, and United claim neither of them gave Zaman permission to engage in hidden-city ticketing. Claiming he is unfairly competing against them and creating false associations by linking customers to their websites, they’re seeking a court order halting the conduct.

It would be a fascinating legal argument, although I imagine that with much deeper pockets Orbitz and United are better-positioned to prevail regardless of the merits.

(HT: Alan H.)

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. On United (and probably all the big boys), it is illegal because the coc expressly prohibits it. The coc is a binding contract, as such, it is private law. When you break the contract, you are breaking the law, it isn’t a criminal offense, but it is a civil offense.

  2. Arguing that a violation of coc is a civil offense will depend on the jurisdiction where the original point of sale was. Perhaps true for the US, not so much in Europe.

  3. Kris, the coc is between the airline and passenger. Search engines for airfare are not violating it simply by definition.

  4. Kris,

    I am sorry but I have to take issue.

    These techniques are simply not illegal.

    They do represent a breach of contract.

    The contract has remedies included in it in the case of such a breach. For example the airline has a right to cancel your B-C section if you choose not fly it.

    Once the airline has pursued their defined contractual remedies the issue with CoC is over.

  5. I don’t understand what the COC has to do with linking to a website? This seems like it would be more related to the terms of use of their websites, although that may be a stretch given that all he’s doing is just linking to to a search with given parameters there.

  6. Breaching a contract is illegal. United reserves the right to cancel the ticket, make you pay the difference in fare between what you paid and the fare for your flown route, take all your miles, close your MP account, take away your status, or take legal action (including suing for money). Read the relevant portions of the coc before commenting on it.
    And the coc thing wasn’t a reference to whether or not UA’s lawsuit is valid (which it is), it was regarding Gary’s claim that it isn’t illegal (which it is).

  7. CoC legality aside, does:

    “…inability to estimate flight passenger counts which can cause departure delays and affect fuel load computations.”

    hold any water? Can someone with knowledge with airline operation comment on this argement?

  8. Kris, I’m not a lawyer, but I do not see how not utilizing both legs of a one way ticket the airline sold you, is illegal
    How is this different of booking a hotel for 3 nights but leaving after 2? (if you don’t ask for a refund of course..)
    what if you don’t feel well and miss your second leg? is that illegal as well?
    The root of the problem is airlines taking advantage of flights to hubs where they dominate the gates and they don’t like it when someone beats them at their game
    I bought a one way ticket from sao paulo to lima for 400 dollars by throwing the return, because buying the one way was 900,,,maybe if the airline had priced it accordingly people wouldn’t have to get creative
    I don’t see how it violates the COC simply because you choose not to use what you purchased or part of it

  9. Kris,

    Hidden city ticketing is not “illegal” (contrary to law), but is an action that puts you in default of your contract with an airline.

    As an attorney, I can whole-hardheartedly tell you that a breach of contract between two private parties is not illegal.

    Hidden city ticketing is against the COCs of the major airlines (and a breach of contract), no doubt about that, and they have every right to sue for breaching that contract.

    But no law is violated. In our form of government, only elected officials can make laws – public law or private law – and only behavior contrary to law can be “illegal”.

    You called contracts “private law”, but this is not correct. A public law is a law written by elected officials that applies to all. A private law (rarely written) is law written by elected officials that applies only to a subset of individuals. Thus, regardless of the contractual provisions violated, hidden city ticketing is not – and cannot be – illegal.

  10. Breaching a contract is not breaking a law.

    It is a breach of contract.

    A contract is a promise.

    Fulfillment of the promise is not codified in law, it is codified in the contract.

  11. Here are the official government definitions of public laws and private laws:

    Public Laws
    Most laws passed by Congress are public laws. Public laws affect society as a whole. Public laws citations include the abbreviation, Pub.L., the Congress number (e.g. 107), and the number of the law. For example: Pub.L. 107-006.

    Private Laws
    Affect an individual, family, or small group. Private laws are enacted to assist citizens that have been injured by government programs or who are appealing an executive agency ruling such as deportation. Private laws citations include the abbreviation, Pvt.L., the Congress number (e.g. 107), and the number of the law. For example: Pvt.L. 107-006.

    Source: http://www.gpo.gov/help/index.html#about_public_and_private_laws.htm

  12. that whole stuff about passenger counts is BS. If the passenger had flown the segments, the plane would be fuller. Now, it is lighter because the passenger got off. The airline got the same amount of money from the passenger, but saved money on fuel because the plane was a bit lighter. In case it oversold that seat, that helps the airline too.
    Passengers are under no obligation to pay a higher fare just because the airline would like them to. Nor are they under the obligation to take the flight if they change their mind – even if the CoC said so, I can’t imagine that holding up in court. However, if you’re serious about frequent-flying and collecting miles, you shouldn’t do this more than once every couple of years, as the airline could throw you out of the program (and that is their right).

  13. I think there might be some confusion here. The owner of the site is not the one traveling on the hidden city ticket. The site is not engaged in selling hidden city tickets, hence the assertion that the owner of the site is “engaging in hidden city ticketing” does not seem to hold water.

    It appears that the site is providing information to the general public and linking to a related search on various websites. To claim that the site owner is “unfairly competing against them” is pretty ludicrous.

    The assertion of “creating false associations by linking customers to their websites” is a finer line. United and/or Orbitz will likely try to prove that they were harmed in some way, but traveling on a hidden city ticket is apparently not illegal, so I don’t think it’s clear cut. I think you have to break it down to two different issues:

    1. Can the site owner legally provide the information to the public to make it easy to find hidden city tickets?

    2. Can the site owner legally link to websites that display search results for said hidden city itineraries.

    In my mind these are separate and distinct as #1 involves first amendment issues and #2 may be more related to terms of use of a website, trademarks, etc.

  14. You mentioned that Orbitz and UA have deeper pockets. Although I hope something like that doesn’t determine the outcome, it would be cool to see Branson or some third party to help SkipLagged merely make their case.

  15. @ augias:

    I’m wondering more about the delay. If the passenger checked in from A-B and the airline is expecting them to fly B-C, how much does the airline wait for the passenger to show up, and do they actually incur delays because of it?

    Last week I just had a 1hr connection in CDG turned into a 25 minute connection, by the time I made the gate, it was already 5 min before the posted departure time. In this case they obviously waited because there are a bunch of people connecting from my delayed flight, but I’m wondering what is the cut off point?

    Also, in terms of fuel, obvioulsy they can calculate it on the fly with a computer, and if 1 pax doesnt’t show up, they probably don’t pump out any fuel. However, at what point would an airline delay the flight to pump out fuel from the plane, if they do it at all?

  16. This is why I’m in law school. I’d love to represent the website. United really has gone down hill and they weren’t that great in the first place.

  17. @Ben They don’t wait at all. If they know a whole bunch of people are coming from another flight, they might try to accommodate them, but they won’t hesitate to close out the flight and push back at the designated time if they are able. They will surely not incur a delay for a single pax unless they specifically know for sure they are running to make the flt, and even then it’s questionable.

    They would never ever pump out fuel from the plane. Flight planning in terms of fuel is fairly complicated, but a few passengers one way or another is not going to make a difference. You can find more info here –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_planning

  18. @Nun Deeper pockets very often do determine the outcome in situations like this. It’s unfortunate, but when a small business or individual is faced with an army of lawyers retained by a large corporation, they usually don’t stand much of a chance since they can easily be outspent very quickly. Defending yourself even against groundless lawsuits can be very expensive, and I talk from experience here.

  19. … causing delays in departures. How many times has a plane been held up waiting for a passenger to arrive? I definitely have missed a couple of flights in the past by mere minutes, and the planes didnt wait 1 second extra for me… On the last one i missed, i was even on the phone with the airline (delta) and they knew i was running all of 5 minutes late.. Their response? “sorry, you’ll have to catch the next available flight…”
    Indeed!! what a vaild claim!

    airlines fly with an uncertain number of passengers most times.. how is the weight of one person and one’s baggage going to cause a verifiable fuel problem on a plane? If that were the case, then air passengers who travel light and dont check baggage on a flight should be sued too.. since the airline miscalculates check baggage for them too…

    if i was a lawyer, i’d be pissed most of the time lol

  20. They can’t really do anything to the passenger except perhaps deny boarding IF the passenger admits they plan to not take the second ticketed flight at check in. What they can do is issue the ticketing agent an ADM. Some carriers do this others don’t. Lufty do it as they are pretty serious on a one way intra-Europe flight costing 500 euros or whatever for their own reasons. Then they’ll issue the agent with a fine for the difference plus a nominal fee. It’s basically considered yield manipulation and is treated as such. I imagine that’s why Orbitz are involved. Sick of getting billed for passengers being advised to do the dodgy on their site where they are the ticketing agent.

  21. @augius & @doug The airline would rather sell you a flight to your actual destination for more and have another leg to sell. They are basically griping that hidden city ticketing prevents them maximizing revenue.

  22. I’m not a legal expert, although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night 🙂

    If the airlines would just price the routes fairly and properly (in the view of the customers) they wouldn’t have this happen.

    For example it usually cost more to buy a ticket on AA from some cities (like STL) to MIA than it does to buy a ticket to MCO that connects through MIA using the same plane. It’s silly.

    If I was the judge on this I would likely have to rule in favor or Orbitz and United if they make a good legal point. I would however really question them and rake them over the coals on this practice just to make a point.

  23. Gary: I am a lawyer, a US lawyer, and I can state unequivocally and absolutely that srptraveller’s analysis above is correct. All that’s happening here is a possible breach of the passenger-airline two-party contract; the consequence of doing that is a possible civil lawsuit for damages. Those damages, in turn, would likely be what’s specified in the contract, assuming it’s at least arguably compensatory as opposed to punitive.

  24. @Tom Yes you’re right but that’s between the airline and the passengers. Passengers traveling on a hidden city ticket are not being sued here. A website that provides information to the passenger is. At issue is whether the website has done anything wrong.

    Imagine a similar scenario… Someone discovers that it’s possible to get a highly discounted airline ticket by booking a very specific routing on a certain airline. This routing makes the fuel surcharge drop off. Obviously the airline did not intend for people to take advantage of this loophole, but it happens sometimes. Then a website publishes this loophole allowing people to take advantage of the discounted ticket. This is what happens all the time on blog like this one, TheFlightDeal, etc. Should all these blogs be prosecuted like Skiplagged for helping people exploit a loophole at the expense of the airlines? Granted, Skiplagged too it one step further by linking to the certain airlines and OTA’s but I’m not sure that makes much of a difference.

    I think at the very least, this lawsuit is an interesting test of first amendment rights. The plaintiff’s case seems to be a stretch to me, but then again, being in the right doesn’t necessarily mean you can win.

  25. @g
    2 year ago needed to go one way from Genoa to Madrid, it was 500 usd on Lufthansa via Munich, booked RT with 30 days forward fake return and paid half….there really isnt too much they can do about it…

  26. Zaman, the idiot, has a LinkedIn page. LOL! The US Press used it to try and get in touch with him. What a Moron. And to think LinkedIn tries to profit from his misery.

    Nonetheless, I downloaded the United/Orbitz complaint, and reading it. 15 USC § 1125(a) — Oh! Trademark abuse. Love it.

  27. Zaman, the idiot, has a LinkedIn page. LOL! The US Press used it to try and get in touch with him. What a Moron. And to think LinkedIn tries to profit from his misery.

    Nonetheless, I downloaded the United/Orbitz complaint, and reading it. 15 USC § 1125(a) — Oh! Trademark abuse. Love it.

  28. Jonathan: Yes, I was speaking generally; the actual suit here is as you say. It’ll be interesting to see how it all turns out, of course, but the First Amendment won’t be part of it: that only applies if there is “state action” involved and here all the parties appear to be private actors. Oftentimes, though, the merits of this sort of thing don’t even matter if one party is in a position to spend the other into oblivion.

  29. This guy should argue that United’s claims are preempted by the ADA like the airlines do with every lawsuit against them.

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