Skiplagged is not the problem. It is also not the solution.


Yes, I buy and fly on “hidden city” or “point beyond” tickets from time to time. It has been a while, but mostly because fares for my trips haven’t necessitated looking for such “discounts” in my travels. And yet still I am torn on the recent tales of Skiplagged, a website which made finding and booking such fares easier. I think the site does not do a good enough job of explaining the risks associated with such trips to consumers but that is not against the law. Violating a contract or inducing others to do so, however, is. Plus there’s the part where I’m convinced that the current fare structure is probably way better for way more consumers than the alternatives.

Don’t get me wrong: I wish fares were lower across the board. I don’t like paying more for a trip if I can avoid it. But I am not at all convinced that charging by distance flown or segments flown rather than based on the airports at each end of the journey will do travelers any favors. Fares are, generally speaking, lower in markets where there is competition. And there are far more of those than there are non-stop markets. And, while there are some airlines which are not opposed to such travel behavior, they are typically smaller and without as many connecting itineraries. The main exception to that pattern is Southwest Airlines which has a lot of connecting flights but also a reasonably robust hub-and-spoke operating model. It already does have some routes where the practice could save money and may find itself less likely to tolerate it going forward.

Maybe the practice is ethical and maybe it is not. I don’t know that I really have an answer to that question. Much of it hinges on deciding what you’re buying when entering into a contract with the airline. The company certainly believes it is sell transportation from Point A to Point B; whether there is a C, D or E along the way does not always factor in to the situation. And yet sometimes the C, D & E cities do matter. Airlines will choose to price a connection cheaper than a non-stop or to make some connecting points cheaper than others. In that regard a passenger truly is buying the specific routing, not just travel from A to B.

Still, choosing to not fly as booked does mean breaking that contract. It is unclear just how enforceable said contract is against passengers but plenty of travel agents have seen enforcement actions over the years. And, enforceable or not, you do agree to it as a customer when buying the ticket. Is it ethical to enter into a deal knowing that you plan to not uphold your half? I really do not know, though I’m inclined to say no.

As for Skiplagged, there are some rather unfortunate circumstances the company has to face up to. It has almost certainly violated its contract with Orbitz. It also likely has violated the terms of use of the United website. I don’t necessarily like the rules, having been forced to stop certain actions I also considered to be customer-friendly. But the rules are quite clearly published. There is nothing to stop anyone from explaining hidden city ticketing to others or even helping search for the fares, assuming the fare data is being acquired legitimately. I’m betting the latter is not the case here; a proper fare feed from a licensed provider is a pricey proposition for a bootstrapped company like Skiplagged. But Skiplagged went beyond that, taking advantage of the Orbitz affiliate marketing program to provide direct booking links to flights which it knew violated the airline’s rules and those of Orbitz. And I’m not so sure it is fair to say that the company need not be held responsible for that.

And there’s still the part where many, many people are now looking at the concept of hidden city ticketing and are now convinced that they should be booking flights this way to save money. Not that it was ever really a secret, but the discussion has not been so mainstream in the past. I’m mostly just worried about the passengers who do not really understand what they’re getting into with these tickets. Little things like no checked bags or possibilities of reroutes can have potentially large ramifications. It is not a beginner-level move and the recent media attention will have many beginners looking at it. That has me worried at many levels.

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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, and LinkedIn.

7 Comments

  1. If I buy a bus ticket from Chicago to New York and I get off at Cleveland do you really think I broke a contract? Getting off at a connection point – given the opportunity – is totally ethical. What is your reasoning to call this unethical?
    Even if you sign a contract that you intend to go from point A to B who can “force you to use a service” and make you stay on the vehicle against your will?

    1. Like I said in the post, I believe that if you enter into a contract with an intention of not honoring it that raises ethical issues IMO. And I’ve never suggested that anyone can force a passenger to use the ticket as purchased. But the carrier can certainly stop doing business with someone who it sees as an unsuitable customer or partner.

      Where it becomes particularly challenging to believe the A-to-B argument of the airlines is when they price A-B differently based on the connection point(s) en route. At that point it is clear that both market pricing and the specific routing matters. That makes the clarity of the contract arguments a bit more difficult.

    2. I’m afraid Pandora’s Box has been opened and can only imagine the excuses or logic examples (i.e. the bus or train example) beginners will give the check-in agents once they tell them to only put their luggages through the connecting city, etc.
      At the same time, perhaps it is time to change the pricing models of airline routes?

      1. As a general rule airlines dislike short-checking bags. I think a lot of people are going to be in for a rude awakening if they end up in that situation.

        Beyond that, what is a better pricing model? Fans of hidden-city ticketing call the current model inefficient or archaic. But it is much newer than the previous model which was to let the CAB set the fares. And that model was decidedly unfriendly to consumers. Charging per segment or per mile doesn’t make much sense for long-haul travel.

        1. I once flew KOA-LAX-JFK-SJU on a mistake fare and wanted to skip out on JFK-SJU. Conveniently the LAX-JFK segment landed in the evening and the JFK-SJU segment didn’t take off till the next morning, so there was no problem with checking bags only through to JFK. Works great if you can swing the connections that way so you have a logical reason.

  2. If you read the lawsuit (http://web.mit.edu/mherdeg/Public/14-cv-09214/1-complaint.pdf) you will notice a few things:

    1. Mr. Zaman apparently never incorporated. Orbitz and United are suing him personally–not Skiplagged or some other corporate entity. This has potentially large financial ramifications for him if he loses, although I’m sure the almost $65K he raised via gofundme (http://www.gofundme.com/skiplagged) certainly will help. Not sure what he was thinking, but I’m sure he’s kicking himself assuming the reality is as it appears.

    2. The suit goes on to describe how Mr. Zaman played a cat and mouse game with Orbitz. How they warned him multiple times to stop and took steps thwart him. According to Orbitz, he blocked their IP range so it would appear that he complied but of course it was just that they could no longer see the offending behavior from their corporate domain. Regardless of what you feel about the practice of hidden city ticketing, that does not reflect well on Mr. Zaman and his approach to things and may hurt his case if the assertions can be proven true. Of course Mr. Zaman makes no mention of any of these facts in his original Reddit AMA (http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2o831k/i_run_skiplagged_a_site_being_sued_by_united/) or the comments to which he chose to respond to. It’s convenient to paint yourself as the victim and gloss over any facts which do not support how you’d like to be portrayed.

    3. The suit makes no assertions about where he gets the data from and I’m guessing Orbitz and United don’t know. If I had to guess, it’s Google Flights since his sight is lightning fast and Google Flights is about the only thing that responds that quickly since it’s based on cached ITA data. Clearly he has no official agreement for this data.

    4. He asserts he has never made a dime off the site, even going so far as to show his affiliate partner statement. That may well be true, but it does seem strange that he was a part of the Orbitz Affiliate Program if he wasn’t going to monetize it. You have to wonder whether things would have been different if he just deep-linked to Orbitz’s flight results without having any sort of relationship with them. As far as I can tell, there was no need for him to be in the affiliate program in order to be able to coax the data out of their system.

    Bottom line, there is more to this story than has been reported in the media. The truth is often not black and white, and I believe this case is no exception. There are numerous layers which make it fascinating, not the least of which is the fact that United (one of the most hated airlines out there already), has a bit of a PR nightmare on their hands given the massive play this issue has been getting both on and off-line.

    If United’s goal was to rein in the process of hidden city ticketing, well the whole thing backfired on them, because travel newbies who knew nothing of the process now are being educated about it. Orbitz, an OTA who needs all the help they can get, is being dragged into it by United to protect themselves, partially due to their crappy and inept IT staff. I highly doubt you’d see someone like Expedia or Priceline joined at the hip with United in a suit like this. They’d tell United to go take a hike.

    1. I have read the complaint and I meant to include a link in the main post. Looks like I forgot; thanks for including it there. And I looked at the AMA earlier this afternoon but after the post went up. Really a whole lot of garbage in there and almost no useful questions answered.

      I agree that there is far more than what has been reported so far, and I think my take helps expose a bit of that.

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