Cease & Desist: Putting an end to some award searches and alerts


Well, I suppose I can say it was a good run. United Airlines has decided I’m violating the terms of service on their website, despite the fact that I’m not actually doing what they say, and I’m the lucky recipient of a cease & desist letter.

Our investigation strongly suggests that Proton Associates is scraping united.com to, among other things, provide United and Star Alliance award and upgrade availability and fare information to its members on wandr.me. However, Proton Associates does not have a contract with United to conduct such activities and has not obtained any authorization from United to access the data located at united.com.

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I don’t think I’ve done what they accuse me of but I don’t have the resources to fight it.

And so, at least for the time being, the Star Alliance Award Search tool is coming offline. I wish I didn’t have to do so but I’m not in a position to fight this. I tried repeatedly to pursue the licensing agreement which they demanded and was rebuffed, told that no such agreement was possible. I will continue to pursue it but I doubt I’ll get anywhere. Such is life. I’m not happy about it but I have to move on, at least for now. Sorry.

(Yes, this post was edited. Deal with it.)

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

63 Comments

  1. Thanks for making it available as long as you did. I know it was a help to me and appreciated your expertise in setting it up and sharing it.

  2. Ugh, this makes me think of Awardwallet information and the airlines blocking things there. It is just ridiculous. Why should I continue to use their system that is okayish to use, when you created something so much better? Sorry to hear.

  3. Let’s me host it in Russia. They can send C&D letters as long as they want. Seriously.

  4. This is ridiculous … they won’t help their customers access award space and won’t let others help their customers either! What happened to the true meaning of loyalty???

  5. Seth, 18 USC 1030 has a definition of “protected computer”–see Section 1030(e)(2). “Protected” in the context of the statute means protected by the law, not by the owner of the computer.

    It does look like 1030(a)(2)(C) is what they’d say you’ve violated. While I don’t like this sort of policy from the airlines, I do think their legal position is reasonable. Unless of course you’re getting the data from some source other that a United-owned or United hired server. If they believe users of their servers have a reasonable amount of access and that your scripts are exceeding that, then there’s not much you can do. Unfortunately so.

    I can’t emphasize enough that I don’t like this, but I’m not sure there’s much you can do. I hope someone in a better position to help you pro bono can step in and offer additional advice.

    I do think they’d have a hard time pursuing any past access because it would be very hard for them to demonstrate that you knew you were exceeding your authorized use. Thankfully it doesn’t sound like they’re interested in pursuing past access anyway.

  6. I am attorney and have been folling the CFAA (computer fraud and abuse act) for a while and I can say that the CFAA is abused time and time again by companies and the Dept. of Justice. There are court cases were judges have been persuaded that merely accessing a website in a way that violates the site’s Terms of Use, is a violation of the CFAA and punishable by fines and imprisonment. And it applies to both government computer systems and private or corporate systems.

    The CFAA was meant to stop people from hacking and breaking into computer systems, but its widely abused no days. It seriously needs reform.

  7. That sucks. If nothing else take it as a validation of your effort and the usefulness of the tools. Like you said it’s unlikely that they’d harass you if these services weren’t widely used.

  8. Lol, and I was just rushing through IAH recently and saw the Seth billboard and it made me laugh, remembering how United took your photo and didn’t necessarily tell you what it was going to be used for (if I recall).

    They want to use your image to show an employee being all friendly and nice to a customer (which is a major case of false advertising, if you know anything about United employees) and yet they’re freaking out that same person helping its customers navigate it’s award inventory.

  9. Adaptability and accommodation enables you to be able to play another day….especially when u come to a fork in the road……time is on ur side and often makes unanticipated future bedfellows….opening new pathways when challenged is one of ur creative strong suits…use this talent to invent or reinvent future endeavors. ..

  10. How does Award Nexus get away with scraping this same data and charging for it?

    What made them so special they got a licensing agreement?

    1. My guess is that they don’t have one and just haven’t received the love letter yet. Keep in mind that EF got one 3-4 months ago and I only did earlier this month.

  11. Can you write scripts and distribute them to your readers? Then, we would individually be scraping, and I doubt there is much they could do to stop it. (Note: I don’t really know much about computers, so please excuse me if my comment is stupid.)

    1. I could and I’ve considered such action. Each person using the scripts/apps would arguably be in violation of the same laws that UA says I broke. But you are correct that it is much less likely UA would pursue so many individual cases.

      At this time I’m not publishing any such apps or scripts to the general public. Maybe some day in the future.

  12. But if you are not accessing their website… Oh well I guess they consider their award space their proprietary “information”. Could you filter out UA flights and still provide the rest of Star?

  13. I’m not a lawyer but I’m somewhat appalled that they’ve used “among other things” multiple times. What kind of language is that?

    Sucks that this happened.

  14. How proprietary are the scripts you wrote? I am tempted to start messing with Python just to see if i could replicate what you did. Not looking for a C&D but just curious. You did mention you weren’t using any United URL’s to run your searches. I think you must be scraping ANA, but this is really a shame they are doing this. Apologies this stuff should be in the GDS.

    1. ANA can be scripted reasonably easily though it is much slower than the resources I was using for these queries. Also, each of the different sources has different sets of data they are better at querying than the others.

    2. Good insights. Thanks for what you have done. I liked what you were doing. Sorry to hear about this.

  15. Your servicing the site thus us flyers is totally appreciated. We all wish we could help in a meaningful way, which you can best decide for us.

  16. I like the idea of HM about someone hosting the site in Europe or, even better, Russia. Hopefully if someone gets a similar system up on their own (without you offering any assistance to put yourself at risk), you could link to it on your website.

  17. Sorry this had to happen to you. Thank you for your help–the award notification helped me on several occasions.

  18. It would be interesting to see how many laws United is violating on a regular basis through deceptive marketing practices, breaches of contract, and other “bad” activities. I’d love to see someone put together a comprehensive list and send that off to Mr. Henning, letting him know that if United doesn’t cease and desist from these practices, a suit will be brought against them.

    I also find it interesting that United throws in accusations that you have violated Texas state law. United, like all of the airlines, relies heavily on the federal pre-emption under the Airline Deregulation Act to ignore most state level consumer protection laws. I find their position to be horribly hypocritical.

  19. Nooooooooooooooo…

    Rewriting and running the script client side using JS in an always open browser would be cool. Or releasing your existing script open source so one can spin up a free or low cost cloud server and run it.

  20. “Notably, United has used the UNITED mark to identify itself to the public for over 80 years and has obtained substantial goodwill and common law rights as a result.”

    Substantial goodwill? I just spewed coffee all over my keyboard. Thanks, United.

  21. Loved using the UA tool, and really sorry to hear this. Another example of United being unfriendly.

  22. I can’t comment on the Trademark part, but of course if a website says you can’t scrape, you can be sued for substantial damages if you do. There’s nothing wrong with that. You are scraping and they don’t allow it, pretty much end of story.

    That being said, and I love your tool, and think your blog is one of the besf, I think it’s HORRIBLY stupid of them to not allow scraping. It can only bring business. They should have an easy license program or even API for you to use. But it’s their business decision to make, unfortunately.

    1. I thought Seth made it clear that he doesn’t scrape united.com.

      They can claim that, but they would presumably prove it in court. Problem is, the legal costs to them aren’t material.

      1. He’s scraping. He has a bot hit their website to gather and redisplay data. Most sites don’t allow that without a license. I love this tool and back WA, but legally United IMHO is very sound. Unless it’s fair use like taking a screenshot to blog about an award you booked. It’s just dumb business decision.

  23. Seth, I’ll buy you a beer (or two) at AIX. Cya next week. Are you going to any other APEX/airline conferences in CA in April or May?

  24. Take the guy up on the Russia hosting offer.
    My guess is you aroused their wrath by pointing out that the website doesn’t always give you the best fare on married segments.

  25. Well, it was nice while it lasted. Both wandr.me and Expertflyer’s United alerts have been enormously useful to me. Thanks, Seth!! (I know enough about software to know Seth was not simply screen-scraping, but I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll refrain from further comment.)

  26. I am appalled at this situation. United is only hurting it’s own loyalty customers and ultimately United. I first believe the best course of action would be to allow someone from Russia WITHOUT your help or connection in any way (wink wink) host this tool and take the touch from you. This would be the cheapest and easiest way to fight this ridiculousness.

  27. I just starting using your Star Alliance Search and the alerts. They were great. Hope somehow you are able to still provide the service at a later date.

  28. The *A tool was fantastic and I got a lot of…uh…”mileage” out of using it.

    Sorry to hear of yet another flyer@___@unfriendly move by the Blue Beast.

  29. Seth –

    Did they make you and offer to become ‘compliant’?

    Or could you proactively respond to them, asking ‘forgiveness’ for your sins, and requesting information on the conditions ($$) UA would require to allow your tools to function.

    Or, do they just want you shut down?

    Lark

    1. No offer was made other than to shut down. I asked multiple times about licensing the data and was outright refused at each request.

  30. So now united has taken to shooting one of their few remaining apologists and fans…. This company is running into the ground.

    (And I say that in the nicest way possible Seth. You probably cut united more slack than any other blogger, and this is what you get. Insane). $2B has to come from somewhere, and by cutting you off at the knees, Jeff will surely save at least $10 a month in bandwidth!)

  31. What GDS does United use (used to be Galileo)? An agreement with a GDS would probably pay better anyway since it’ll give access to more airlines’ data. I haven’t thought GDS in a really long time but did work for Worldspan back in the TWA days.

    1. They mask the award buckets from showing in the public GDS systems. Having access wouldn’t help unless it was directly into their SHARES system.

  32. @Seth. Sorry to see a great tool and hard work behind it go away. May be someone sensible at United, thinks this betters their revenue rather than other way round and it comes live again! Thanks for the last minute award emails which made my trips better 🙂

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