David vs. Goliath, United and Orbitz Try Cracking Down on Cheap Airfare Practices

Regular readers may be familiar with the indispensable guide to saving money on airfare using hidden city and throwaway tickets.

In the guide I explain how to find extra flights for your ticket that allow you to save money, I outline the risks and how to make best use of the techniques.

A year ago a new website called Skiplagged launched to help find those extra flights that save you money.

Last month Orbitz and United sued to shut down the site.

Hidden city ticketing is 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.

I’m surprised it took a year for the lawsuit to come about. While there’s nothing illegal about throwaway ticketing as such, I am not familiar with the methods Skiplagged is using to access airfare data or what website access agreements may be involved.

The story of this suit is all over the media right now, for some reason (about six weeks after the lawsuit was first filed). But it’s certainly helping Skiplagged, whose founder has an online fundraiser for his legal defense. As of this writing, he’s 92% of the way towards his goal.

I love the David and Goliath story here. I also think a good legal defense fund, far more than the $20,000 being sought, it appropriate. Because I hate when companies prevail through legal threats purely because of the expense involved.

Ironically United and Orbitz aren’t just raising money for the legal costs to fight them, they’re educating consumers about how to actually go about using these techniques. My posts on throwaway ticketing have been viewed about 40,000 times today and no doubt other discussions online have gotten attention as well (not to mention all of the people that have gone to the Skiplagged site!).

Hopefully the media attention alone will encourage United and Orbitz to back off. As though United doesn’t have enough of a problem for leaving a dog alone on the tarmac in the pouring rain


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. Streisand effect:
    The phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.

  2. Once again, United finds itself at the bottom of the US airline cesspool, where it rightly belongs.

  3. I find myself really pissed off that any airline would have the nerve to try and stop folks from using common sense. They are free to price their product, I’m free to pick and choose what I want to buy from their offerings. They are making such an obscene amount of money on services unrelated to the flight itself, I just get angry when they try these bully stunts, and that includes actions toward AwardWallet. So our govt jammed through a consumer protection unit, where the hell are they in all of this. Ridiculous.

  4. Contracts are private law. The COC expressly prohibits hidden city tickets. As such, hidden city tickets are illegal. Not criminally, but civilly.

  5. @Kris – for that the airline would have to prove intent. What if I simply felt like visiting a city on the way over, or fell really ill and had to leave the airport. It would take consistent abuse to prove anything.

    That’s precisely why United is all over this, they know they can’t really enforce it without raising a lot of ire from the public, so they go after the facilitator.

  6. @Kris – “illegal” is not the right term. Hidden city tickets are a breach of a contract (the one between you and the airline). A breach of a private contract isn’t illegal, it merely establishes a private cause of action.

    It is a lot of legal terminology but “illegal” generally indicates an offense for which the government can take action against you. Hidden city ticketing does not meet that definition.

  7. Just because something is part of a contract, doesn’t mean that it’s enforceable if it’s against public policy or state or federal law. There is a long laundry list of things that our society has decided people can’t put in a legally binding contract.

    This type of activity is something that those agencies who regulate airlines, and/or consumer protection agencies and/or state attorney general offices and/or legislatures, should take action and make sure that consumers have the right to use whatever is available to buy.

  8. According to United/Orbitz’ lawsuit, Skiplagged had a contract with them originally. When the United/Orbitz told them to stop the practice, Skiplagged ignored it and then breached this original contract.

    I have not read Skiplagged’s Response brief, only a brilliantly crafted United brief that tries to enforce the 15 USC § 1125 ontop of everything else.

    Anyone have a .pdf of Skiplagged’s brief? I’d like to read it to get the other side.

    Thanks

  9. AirFareIQ.com shows you how to do this yourself, at least on domestic flights, without using Skiplagged. I think Skiplagged faulted by trying to profit themselves from it (via Orbitz and United affiliate commissions).

    And I agree with the thought that bringing this technique to public light, via a lawsuit that will be reported over and over and over again by various media, is United shooting themselves in their own foot.

  10. If I were United, I wouldn’t care. This will only become popular by a small group because most travellers don’t want to take the risk that the flight from A to B is delayed and therefore you will miss your connection (which you don’t care about but the airline does) and then you get rerouted to D. This could be a very expensive exercise.

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