United Airlines lost a legal round in its effort to stop a website that helps people find “hidden city” ticket pairs. The airline, along with online travel site Orbitz, sued New York-based Skiplagged.com and its founder, Aktarer Zaman, in November seeking an injunction to stop the site from sending users to Orbitz to purchase United tickets. A federal judge ruled Thursday that Illinois isn't the proper venue for the carrier's claims.
The “hidden city” ticketing technique involves buying an airline ticket between two cities with a connection, but ditching the rest of the trip. Say you want to fly from Las Vegas to Philadelphia but find a ticket from Vegas to Boston—with a connection in Philadelphia—that's cheaper. You land in Philly and prance out of the airport, retaining the savings.
When it sued, United said such ticketing schemes violate its fare rules. For one thing, the tickets capture seats that will go unused, and an airline would have no way to sell those unused seats. United also argued that hidden-city ticketing can delay flights as gate agents await travelers who don’t show up. Airlines already sometimes retaliate by canceling any remaining ticket portions of an itinerary or rescinding any frequent flier mileage for the trip.
U.S. District Judge John Blakey ruled Thursday that Illinois isn’t the appropriate place for Chicago-based United to bring its lawsuit, given that neither Zaman nor Skiplagged has “relevant, meaningful contacts” in the state. “This dismissal does not preclude Plaintiff from refiling and litigating its claims in a proper forum,” Blakey wrote in his decision.
A United spokeswoman said Friday that the ruling was procedural and did not address the merits of United’s case. “We remain troubled that Mr. Zaman continues to openly encourage customers to violate our contract of carriage by purchasing hidden-city tickets, putting the validity of their ticket and MileagePlus status at risk,” spokeswoman Christen David said. She declined further comment on whether United plans to refile its lawsuit.
If it does, New York is the only logical destination for a new lawsuit, said Zaman’s attorney, Irwin Schwartz. “If United wants to try to continue bullying Skiplagged for what it’s doing, they’re going to have to come to New York to do it,” he said, arguing that the site merely publishes public information on airfares and has a First Amendment right to do so. Zaman has raised more than $79,000 since December to help fund the lawsuit defense, according to a fundraising website he launched. His legal bills have not exceeded that amount, Schwartz said.
International media attention to the lawsuit has helped boost the site’s traffic enormously, Schwartz added. “God bless United, at least from a business perspective.”