Airline Lawsuit

United and Orbitz sue website for promoting cheap flights by using loophole

United and Orbitz sue website for promoting cheap flight via loophole

United Airlines at Eagle County Regional Airport outside Vail Colorado
United Airlines, along with Orbitz, are suing website Skiplagged for promoting cheaper tickets through 'hidden city' connections. Photo by © Thomas H. Green

When searching for the cheapest airline tickets, sometimes taking a flight with a layover stop at your intended destination — and subsequently exiting the plane there instead of continuing on — is actually less expensive than a direct flight to the same place.

These so-called 'hidden city' connections are being promoted by website Skiplagged, a small startup founded by 22-year-old Aktarer Zaman, which helps travelers achieve better deals on tickets.

"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 told Bloomberg News.

As expected, the airlines are not happy about people taking advantage of this loophole. As a result, United Airlines and Orbitz are suing Skiplagged for promoting the practice.

"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, Bloomberg reports. "'Hidden city' ticketing is strictly prohibited by most commercial airlines because of logistical and public-safety concerns."

Zaman, a New York resident, "intentionally and maliciously" interfered with airline industry business "by promoting prohibited forms of travel," the companies alleged in their complaint, filed Nov. 18 in a Chicago federal court. The complaint also stated that one of several concerns is United's resultant inability to accurately count passengers, which can lead to departure delays and affect fuel load computations.

Furthermore, the suit claims Zaman is unfairly competing against the companies as well as implying he's connected to United and Orbitz by linking Skiplagged customers to their websites. Now the companies are seeking a court order to halt the site's practices.

Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, told Bloomberg that "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."

"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.

Airlines have told Orbitz that a traveler caught employing 'hidden city' routing is subject to having his ticket voided without refund, the travel booking company said last month in a statement.

Skiplagged is now soliciting GoFundMe donations from the site's users to fight the suit in court. Currently, nearly $55,000 of the $60,000 goal has been raised from 271 contributors.

On Nov. 26, when Zaman created his GoFundMe page, he posted the following comment to Skiplagged customers donating to assist in the suit: 

Skiplagged's sole purpose has always been to help you become savvy travelers. We have been doing that by exposing pricing inefficiencies for air travel, among other things. Unfortunately, we have been doing too good of a job so United Airlines and Orbitz recently teamed up with a lawsuit to get in the way. Everything Skiplagged has done and continues to do is legal, but the only way to effectively prove this is with lawyers."

United and Orbitz are suing Zaman for $75,000, citing "unfair competition."