United, Orbitz Sue Travel Site Over ‘Hidden City’ Tickets

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United Airlines Inc. and Orbitz Worldwide LLC sued to prevent the travel website Skiplagged.com from helping consumers buy what the companies call improper “hidden city” plane tickets that undercut their sales.

Skiplagged helps travelers find cheap airfares by enabling them to book multistop flights and deplane before the flights reach their as-booked final destination. Sometimes a fare that travels through a hub city to another location can be cheaper than a ticket to the hub city alone.

“In its simplest form, a passenger purchases a ticket from city A to city B to city C but does not travel beyond city B,” according to the companies’ complaint. “‘Hidden City’ ticketing is strictly prohibited by most commercial airlines because of logistical and public-safety concerns.”

Skiplagged founder Aktarer Zaman of New York “intentionally and maliciously” interfered with airline industry business relationships “by promoting prohibited forms of travel,” the companies said in their complaint, filed today in Chicago federal court.

Among their stated concerns is United’s resultant inability to count passengers, which can cause departure delays and affect fuel load computations.

No Permission

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

Zaman, reached through his LinkedIn.com e-mail account, had no immediate comment on the suit. United Airlines is a unit of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings. Orbitz is a unit of Orbitz Worldwide Inc.

Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, said hundreds of thousands of frequent fliers probably use the hidden-city technique, but the most savvy only do it a few times a year to prevent detection by the airlines. Carriers are likely to freeze the frequent-flier accounts or travelers who use the technique or to strip them of miles, said Petersen, who is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Potato Chips

Airlines and passengers have disagreed over the practice for decades, he said. People who seek out hidden-city tickets often liken forgoing the second half of a trip to not eating the bottom half of a bag of chips. The thinking: They paid for the chips, so why are they required to eat the whole bag?

Carriers say that the practice takes unfair advantage of the hub-and-spoke airline system and that people who use it are defrauding them, Petersen said.

“Use of hidden-city ticketing can save a lot of money, and airlines aren’t in the business of promoting, allowing or turning a blind eye to practices that can break the system down,” Petersen said.

Small corporate travel departments occasionally employ it, too, risking the loss of fare discounts they enjoy. Still, some can’t resist paying $400 for a ticket using the technique if it would cost $1,200 the traditional way, he said.

Airlines have told Orbitz that a traveler caught on a hidden-city routing is subject to having his ticket voided without refund, the Internet travel company said today in a statement.

American Airlines Group Inc., in a letter to travel agents on its website, suggested it will have to raise fares if it keeps losing money from the practice.

“Purchasing a ticket to a point beyond the actual destination and getting off the aircraft at the connecting point is unethical,” according to the letter by American, which isn’t party to the case. “It is tantamount to switching price tags to obtain a lower price on goods sold at department stores.”

The case is United Airlines Inc. v. Zaman, 14-cv-9214, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).