Op-Ed: Hidden-city ticketing not so hidden to the masses anymore

The concept of hidden-city ticketing is not a new one; airlines have been dealing with it for years. But millions more people recently became aware of the concept thanks to a lawsuit filed in late 2014 against the website Skiplagged.com. The site helps travelers search for itineraries which reduce air fares via hidden-city ticketing, and that has upset online travel agent Orbitz and United Airlines enough that a case was brought in federal court.

The crux of the suit centers on two main claims:

1) Skiplagged is inducing passengers to violate the Contract of Carriage (“tortious interference”) which governs the tickets you buy from the airline; and,

2) The presentation of fares on the Skiplagged site and the deep-links to purchase those fares from the vendors violates the terms of service of the websites in various ways.

The main response from the website has been to the effect of, “It is not illegal to only use part of what you buy.” Unfortunately this opens up a proverbial Pandora’s box regarding what is actually being purchased when a passenger buys an airline ticket. Is it transportation from A to B (the airlines seem to think so) or is it a collection of individual segments. Does a customer have recourse if the flight routing changes?

The popular voice surrounding the story suggests that hidden-city ticketing is simply “getting back” at the airlines for charging such high fares to begin with. I’ve read calls for distance- or segment-based fares rather than market-based. And it makes me think back to the CAB era when government officials set the fares and decided which airlines were allowed to serve different markets. And tickets cost far more. Going back to that sort of system would be a mess for most consumers in many ways.

I cannot stand on a soap box and say hidden-city ticketing is evil or that I’ve never used it. I have. I did so fully aware of the consequences of my actions and knowing how the rules I was breaking work. And I’ll probably do it again at some point.

Skiplagged was not providing those details for its users. That’s bad form but probably not illegal. Inducing customers to enter into a false contract, however, seems like a reasonably easy case to prove.

United and Orbitz may win the lawsuit. They may get the injunction that puts Skiplagged out of business (or at least stops the linking to their sites). Or maybe not. More than $50,000 has been raised by the crowd-sourced legal defense fund for the site. This is not going to end quietly.

But this is definitely not the end for hidden-city ticketing. In fact, there are a whole lot more passengers who now know about the concept and who are likely to be looking at it in the future. Winning a battle is much easier than winning the war.