United Airlines Threatens to Trash the Credit of Passengers Who Skip Purchased Flight Segments

You may be able to save hundreds of dollars on a one-way fare buying an itinerary that connects in the city you actually want to travel to, and never taking the flight beyond that city to the final destination on the ticket.

This technique is most useful when you are flying to an airline’s hub city since they’ll have connecting flights beyond the hub. Just pick a (usually nearby) city to fly to where fares are cheaper, likely because of competition from low cost carriers or because there’s less business travel.

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.

Generally speaking customers have been fine provided they followed these guidelines:

  • Don’t check bags
  • Don’t put your preferred frequent flyer number in the reservation
  • Be prepared to explain the need for your original routing in the event of flight delays and cancellations
  • Only drop the last segment of your itinerary
  • Don’t do this super regularly

Travel agents who do this regularly for clients can get ‘debit memos’ — requiring them to pay the difference in fare (or risk losing their ability to issue tickets on the airline). Individual flyers generally aren’t forced to pay up.

However United apparently wants to change that.

United tried to shut down website Skiplagged which helps customers find hidden city ticketing opportunities but their efforts went nowhere in court.

No Mas Coach reports on United’s effort to go after customers specifically that utilize Skiplagged to fly hidden city itineraries on the airline.

RE: Notice of Claim Pertaining to Point Beyond Ticketing and Demand for Reimbursement

Dear [….],

It has come to United Airlines’ attention that on multiple occasions you have violated the “Prohibited Practices” outlined in Rule 6 of United’s Contract of Carriage.

United identified 38 instances since January of 2016 where you engaged in “Point Beyond Ticketing,” which is the unauthorized purchase of a ticket to a destination more distant than your actual destination. As shown below, the last segment of each ticket was not used. By including the additional segment, you were able to purchase your ticket at a lower fare. Please note that no irregular operations were involved in these itineraries to prevent you from making the connecting flight.

…Such conduct constitutes fraud and a violation of Rule 6 of United’s Contract of Carriage. Accordingly, United demands that you cease and desist these unauthorized practices immediately and that you reimburse United in the amount of $3,236.76 which represents the difference between the cost of the tickets that you purchased and the cost of the travel taken, within 10 business day of receipt of this letter.

Please remit payment directly to me via credit card or a check made out to “United Airlines, Inc.” and send to:

United Airlines, Inc.
233 S. Wacker 28th floor
Chicago, IL 60606

If you do not make the requested payment, United Airlines reserves its right to take further action, including submitting United’s claim to an outside collection agency, terminating your MileagePlus membership and/or refusing to transport you on future flights in accordance with Rule 21 of the Contract of Carriage. If you have questions regarding this letter, feel free to contact me via [redacted].

Sincerely,
Corporate Security
United Airlines

Here they’re demanding payment of over $3000 and threatening to shut down the member’s frequent flyer account and ban then from the airline. They are also threatening to send this to collections. That would damage the member’s credit report. The higher your credit score the more a collection will hurt it.

I don’t see how this is a valid debt to send to collection. The passenger never agreed to pay the amount United is requesting. United is merely asserting a claim but hasn’t obtained a judgment for that claim. Indeed the passenger will have receipts from United showing payment in full for the itineraries purchased.

Two years ago I had readers tell me that United sent them letters detailing their hidden city tickets and demanding payment for the difference in fare between what they paid and the prevailing fare for the routes actually flown. In both cases they (1) employed the technique frequently (more than monthly) and (2) gave their United frequent flyer number to the airline each time.

Now they appear to be threatening collections — I’d love to hear about any case where United actually took that step — and specifically targeting users of a website that United was unable to shut down in the courts. The potential counterclaims could be interesting here.

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. Wow.
    I wonder how United would feel about how when I need to throw away a ticket at the last minute and it’s cheaper to buy a one way, I still check in for my flight I never intend to show up for 🙂 bc like hey, I paid for it, I have no incentive to cancel it and maybe the person who I was gonna sit next to now gets an empty seat.

    I’ll never fully understand the way airlines decide how to charge fares sometimes. Last year I discovered it was $1829 cheaper to buy a round-trip on AA from PHX-LHR than it was to buy a one way ($3,076 VS $1,247)

  2. There is no valid debt – no promise was made to pay an amount in the future, no payment that was due was not made, no product received that wasn’t explicitly purchased and paid for and acknowledged as paid in full by the airline – so even if this type of thing got sent to collections, it’d be fairly easy to stamp out via the methods in the FDCPA. A nuisance? Absolutely. Would someone like me with a little free time and a bone to pick about the principle sue the collection agency about this kind of thing? Absolutely.

  3. Going against people who flaunt the terms and conditions of their contract is not, per se, unreasonable. And those terms are not, in themselves, unreasonable. No big deal. Move on and fight against airline behavior which is unreasonable, such as the one-sided nature of the terms and conditions.

  4. @NB – refusing to do business with someone (cancelling the frequent flyer account, or banning someone from an airline) for violating adhesion terms may be one thing. Sending them to collections and trashing their credit over a dubious ‘debt’?

  5. If you get such a bill, send them one for the stress caused by unwanted correspondence, doctor’s and spa visits, etc. Tell them to deduct whatever they are owed and send the rest by certified check.

  6. Does this airline continue to make it easier and easier to leave them? I already did a while ago but these silly decisions continue to validate my decision.

  7. I almost wish I’d done this if only to get that fat settlement when I take then to court for trashing my credit over a debt that isn’t a debt. This is enough to set trial lawyers salivating.

    Are you ready, United? The sharks are circling.

  8. I’m just trying to appease our stakeholders, you know, my bosses.
    I’m sure my old buddy Dug will eventually climb on board.

  9. It’s absolutely brilliant a new way to drag passengers down the aisle to receive United premium passenger punishment without a drop of blood
    No police or lawyers need be present
    Once in United Arbitration though in order to get your account reinstated you will be subject to water boarding beaten and caned until you confess to having sold or bartered a Milegae plus ticket sometime in your lifetime
    You can seek imprisonment for up to 10 years your Credit ruined and a 1 million dollar fine for forgiveness and or a public flogging in Downtown CHICAGO
    After that you agree to follow every written and stated Mileage Plus terms and conditions or give up your family and deed to your home vault and remaining assets
    Thank you for flying Kirby’s United Scarelines

  10. I’m sure on some of those flights they were able to accommodate other passengers that benefitted United – of course no tracking or mention of that.

  11. @Scotch Kirby. You can have Dug at anytime. No, seriously, please take him now.

    Thanks in advance,
    Every AA Flyer

  12. Makes no sense… they make the convoluted pricing rules and then when we follow them to our advantage, they don’t like it. What a joke. How can it make any logical sense to price a ticket NYC-ORD more expensively than NYC-ORD-LAX? That makes no logical sense in any other form of consumerism. Yet, it makes sense to airlines for the convoluted reasons that it does. And when we throw away the ORD-LAX leg, they want to punish us. I’m hoping that someone tells the attorney general about this… I want to see United slapped really for this crap.

  13. Gee, and if I change my plans entirely, and don’t use my discounted ticket purchased in advance and non-refundable are they going to ask me to pay a higher rate for not flying at all?

  14. I suspect that UA haven’t a leg to stand on legally, but why would anyone be surprised at getting some nasty corporate pushback on violating one of the more obvious terms of the contract? This may have worked well in the 90s but no longer. Airlines are going to base much of the price based on city-pair, so no surprise that they don’t want you circumventing it. Plus it’s useful to pick up city pairs that offer cheaper fares – a BUD-SFO r/t is often going to be cheaper than SFO-BUD, say.

  15. If this is determined to be a valid debt what is to stop someone from billing the airline their hourly rate for a MX delay?

  16. I doubt that United will accomplish anything by going to collections, but they do have the right to shut down a Mileage Plus account and/or refuse service, and I don’t mind seeing them do that. Some people still think pricing is based on distance, and/or that it is the sum of legs of flights. No, it is based on maximizing profit. And that in turn is generally related to competition and supply and demand.

    If I want to fly from my regional airport to Atlanta nonstop, I have exactly one choice, Delta. So Delta does not have to consider competition so much in pricing that flight. On the other hand I cannot fly nonstop at all to Charleston, S.C. To get there I can choose connecting flights on Delta, United, American or Southwest. Lots of competition. It makes a lot of sense, actually, that my Delta nonstop to Atlanta (unencumbered by direct competition) may be higher than a flight to Charleston via Atlanta, on which Delta needs to compete with several other carriers.

    What the “ethicist” from NYT doesn’t examine deeply enough is that the ethics are not just a matter of a customer’s dealings with an airline. Also to be taken into account is the impact on fellow travelers or would-be travelers. Seats into my regional airport can be limited, and award seats can be very much limited on certain airlines or times of the year. What the “throwaway ticket” passenger is doing is blocking out space, blocking out award space, or blocking out inexpensive seats that another traveler might need or appreciate having access to. If someone wanting to fly to DFW instead buys a throwaway ticket to my airport that connects through DFW, with no intention to fly it, that is one less seat that is available to me or another traveler. I suppose the rationalization is that on any given flight the number of people doing this is quite small, so that the impact may not be large. Maybe, maybe not, but it’s a selfish thing to do.

  17. Re being selfish — So someone who buys the last bunch of bananas at a grocery store and then throws away two later in the week was selfish because someone might have wanted bananas from the same store later that day? Snore.

  18. @AA Flyers
    There’s no room for him here @Unitedless, yet. However it might be time for him to take his Golden Parachute since my millions of shares of AA stock are becoming nearly worse-less.

  19. So in the future I should go to the gate, scan the boarding pass and then elect not to take the flight once the FA’s announce that option.

    This is stupid on United’s part. It’s just bad PR in general. What they should do is make flight cost match the flight involved instead of selling it cheaper because you connect in some random city.

  20. @Jon, The person intended to eat the bananas, or he or she would have purchased fewer. There’s no comparison. Snore all you want but food waste is a major issue. Fortunately many supermarkets and restaurants are working at ways to reduce it.

  21. Pure scare tactics on United’s part. There are huge legal holes in their demand which could in fact end badly for them (United) if they target a litigious traveller. It’s a try-on.
    On the other hand to do it 38 times, and supply your correct FF account number, is stupidity plus and against the unofficial rules of pulling this off unnoticed (see above).

  22. @shawn
    In the instance you state, the airline would say you must cancel your (non-refundable) ticket and pay the cancellation fee. AS IF!!!! hahaha

  23. It’s a shame that the provision about refunds in the FAA Reauthorization bill isn’t in effect yet, since it appears to cover flights not taken by the passenger. I’d respond to the letter with a request for a refund of the flights that I wasn’t able to fly.

    I’d say that the burden is on United to show that it was indeed point-beyond ticketing. If this letter is sent to someone with a disability or someone that otherwise had a good reason to not take those flights, there’s probably fines in store for them.

    In practice, I’ve gotten a letter like this from American in the past, and the consequence was that they took the few miles in that account. I’d expect this is the same game.

  24. Banana analogy: say it is cheaper to buy 5 bananas than 3 bananas, and if you throw 1 or 2 out you must pay the store for the price of 3. During certain grocery sales, I often see large qtys sold for less than small qtys, especially on the cereal aisle.
    Point 2: in no way, shape, or form, despite contract of carriage rules, can an entity compel an individual to “get on the plane, bus, car, etc.” Maybe in Red China, but I doubt they even do that. The pattern of behavior argument is immaterial for a customer, but not for a business.
    Point 3: who does United think they are fooling? If they took all business from LCC’s because all of their customers did this, their short term profits may take a hit, but their relative market share would skyrocket forcing the LCC’s and legacy competition out of their Hubs. Then they could resort to dragging customers off of planes because they don’t have enough capacity.
    Point 4: they would never pay an overbooking fee again to a customer on a plane going to an LCC airport. Nice!
    Point 5: what if, somehow, as a result of this legal assertion, a court declares it legal for a customer to join a flight at any intermediate destination? For a nonrefundable fare, that argument is not even a stretch. Either refund the fare or give the customer his seat at any point on the itinerary. Simple logic.

  25. This is incredible. I think United’s position is a bit extreme (not entirely beyond the pale, but extreme).

    Like Gary, if anyone knows more about United actually going after people, me and TPOL (Alex Bachuwa) would love to hear more and discuss.

    The big thing in the back of my head is “how is United damaged?” You’re not on the B-C flight to sip on tomato juice or burn .01% more fuel. It’s a tough argument for United to make.

  26. Lots of consumers will search for the best deal and exploit ways to obtain it. Saying it is not allowed, will not stop people from doing it and we all do it in one form or another.

    I’ve purchased a hotel stay for 4 nghts, when I only needed 3, because the deal for 4 nights was cheaper than booking just 3 nights. I only stayed 3 nights.

    I needed a rental car for for a week in one location but needed to drop it off at a different location (just driving to another state on the last day). Total cost for doing this in one booking was around $400 more than if I booked the car for a week dropping it off at the same location, then doing a 1 day rental, dropping off at a different location. The rep let us keep the same car and said “that is smart”, when I explained. We have also returned rental cars “early” because it was cheaper to rent it for a certain amount of time, than for the amount we actually needed.

    Many people use Wyndham’s stay 2 nights promo to get a free night and never stay at the $40 hotel they booked, they just show up, pay, leave – maybe they go mess up the bed. I don’t know if there is a rule that says your butt has to be in the bed but would it matter? You paid for the room.

    For the people who argue someone else could have had the seat, etc.. If the person would have flown both segments, the seat would have been taken anyway and it is just as likely that someone on standby got the seat when this person didn’t show up. If I pay for a room but leave without notifying the hotel or don’t show up and they hold it, tough for someone else looking for a room – I PAID FOR IT.

    If I purchase a concert ticket that has 2 performers and I only want to see one of those, should I be required to show up to watch both?

    Think about the absurdity of paying more to get off a plane at point B, than you pay to get off at point C – when point C is half way across the country and the plane was stopping at point B..

  27. “Two years ago I had readers tell me that United sent them letters detailing their hidden city tickets and demanding payment for the difference in fare between what they paid and the prevailing fare for the routes actually flown.”

    So what happened with this situation?

  28. Everyone who does this 38 times in under two years knows this violates the CoC and would be an idiot to do this on an airline they have miles with or care to fly again. Obviously UA hasn’t a leg to stand on sending this to collection without first taking the claim to court. I could see them refuse future carriage unless the customer pays up, though.

  29. United demands payment of $3,236.76 for the segments not flown. How does United plan to reimburse for putting another paid customer in that empty seat?

    Basically United was paid twice for that seat.

  30. So if I order a discount meal at McDonald’s and don’t eat the fries, are they entitled to collect, because the cost of the burger plus soda separately maybe more than the meal with fries?

  31. While this is most likely not gonna be a valid debt and thus the threat will never actually come true to harm the passenger’s credit. However, it’s definitely within United’s authority to shut down the mileage account and blacklist that person. (Not that I care if United blacklist me or anything, I’ve personally blacklisted them anyway)

  32. The car rental companies do similar pricing that does not make sense to the end users at times.

    I had rented a car with AVIS for 5 days, but returned it after 3 as my business trip ended sooner then I had planned for. When I returned the car I noticed I was charged almost double the cost of what I reserved it for. In my head I “knew” this was a mistake that can get easily corrected but did not have time to do so on the spot as I had a plane to catch. Once I called up to correct I was told this was not an error but in fact correct as my original booking for 5 days was cheaper then the 3 days I used the car for. I escalated this to a supervisor but got the same outcome. They stood behind the extra cost for fewer days, despite the fact they now had the car to rent to another person.

    I was sent a random customer satisfaction survey about my most recent rental experience. I gave the lowest marks where applicable. In their response they again stood by what I was previously told but given a refund of not only the difference in price but pro-rated upon the per day cost of my original reservation as a token of goodwill.

  33. Re, rental car analogy. The issue with rental cars is that they have to be stored, so a shorter rental that originally needed a Saturday night stay, or minimum number of nights, may incur a surcharge that is hard to reverse. Hopping off the plane early, the equivalent of missing a leg, is not the same. United is bluffing.
    But I do like the rental car strategies I read here, since rental cars are very competitive given the changes in the industry with Uber and Zip Car.

  34. Thank you @Jon for your comments. And for using the correct form of the word ‘principle’, which almost no one seems to be able to do any more.

  35. This would be a field day for the Lawyers.
    Use any excuse for not being able to continue the flight, illness, business changes, drunk, unsociable behaviour etc.
    Airline then has to prove otherwise. Did the airline fly with empty seat or did a stand by passenger use it. Both gains for the airline.
    Would informing the airline desk at point B, you are unable to continue the journey and request a refund for the remaining leg on anon refundable ticket upset UA.

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