Last week No Mas Coach reported that a reader received a letter instructing them that they had performed 38 Hidden-City journeys (getting off before the last stop) and owe United Airlines more than $3,000. No, they don’t. In this post, I will tell you why United is wrong (though my next post will be the counterpoint on the same subject.)
What Is Hidden-City Ticketing
To avoid spending too much time on the topic, Hidden-City ticketing is buying a ticket between two points but only intending to fly someplace along the route. The purpose of Hidden-City or Skiplagging is for consumers to save money over more expensive nonstop options.
I’ll borrow the same example Matthew found this week though there are nearly infinite options. United sells Los Angeles to Chicago O’Hare at a premium ($171 one-way) while they will sell a longer route (LAX-ORD-MCO) for less ($121 one-way) even though it is cheaper in order to compete with direct routes and undercut the competition.
Hidden-City consumers are buying a ticket from an origin to a destination (Los Angeles to Orland0) and not the route Los Angeles – Chicago – Orlando). If there is a delay or mechanical problem with the aircraft, United’s duty is to get you to Orlando and may do that via Houston if they like. While you can insist on a connection in Chicago, it’s not guaranteed.
You also may not check your luggage as they will arrive in your final destination (with the exception of international arrivals into the US). Also, logging into your frequent flyer account can link your activity to your miles and status and make you a target for the loss of those assets as Hidden-City ticketing violates the terms.
The Contract of Carriage…
Every ticket sold to a customer follows a contract of carriage that the outlines responsibility of the purchaser and the carrier (United). In the contract of carriage, it is clearly outlined that the carrier has a responsibility to get you to your final destination, but not necessarily by the route they sell (more on that shortly), that the ticket should not be misused:
“Fares apply for travel only between the points for which they are published. Tickets may not be purchased and used at fare(s) from an initial departure point on the Ticket which is before the Passenger’s actual point of origin of travel, or to a more distant point(s) than the Passenger’s actual destination being traveled even when the purchase and use of such Tickets would produce a lower fare. This practice is known as “Hidden Cities Ticketing” or “Point Beyond Ticketing” and is prohibited by UA.
The purchase and use of round-trip Tickets for the purpose of one-way travel only, known as “Throwaway Ticketing” is prohibited by UA.
Any practice that United believes, in its sole discretion, is exploitative, abusive or that manipulates/bypasses/overrides United’s fare and ticket rules.
They also indicate just what they can do if one is found to participate in such ticketing at their “sole discretion” and my favorite part “may include, but not limited to”means the following will probably happen but literally anything else can as well.
“UA’s Remedies for Violation(s) of Rules – Where a Ticket is purchased and used in violation of the law, these rules or any fare rule (including Hidden Cities Ticketing, Point Beyond Ticketing, Throwaway Ticketing, or Back-to-Back Ticketing), UA, without notice to the passenger, has the right in its sole discretion to take all actions permitted by law, including but not limited to, the following:
Invalidate the Ticket(s);
Cancel any remaining portion of the Passenger’s itinerary;
Confiscate any unused Flight Coupons;
Permanently ban or refuse to board the Passenger and to carry the Passenger’s baggage, unless the difference between the fare paid and the fare for transportation used is collected prior to boarding;
Assess the Passenger for the actual value of the Ticket which shall be the difference between the lowest fare applicable to the Passenger’s actual itinerary and the fare actually paid;
Delete miles in the Passenger’s frequent flyer account (UA’s MileagePlus Program), revoke the Passenger’s Elite status, if any, in the MileagePlus Program, terminate the Passenger’s participation in the MileagePlus Program, or take any other action permitted by the MileagePlus Program Rules in UA’s “MileagePlus Rules;” and
Take legal action with respect to the Passenger.
So, there you have it. They can do it and they told you they may or may not – the fact that they have is immaterial. Number (5) in Article K clearly states that they can assess the passenger the difference between the cheapest fare between what they actually flew and what they ticketed which may be cheaper.
Charging Someone For Not Using Something They Bought?
Let’s play my favorite game ever, the analogy game.
Airfare is an elective purchase like any other. If I buy something and decide not to finish it, what damage have I caused the vendor? If I buy a whole pizza, take one bite out of it and throw the rest away, is that no longer my right? If I buy a ticket to a movie, do I have to finish it? I can think of plenty of examples in which a unit price is justifiably sold for more than a bulk price like a can of Coke for $.30 as part of a 12-pack instead of $5 inside of a stadium. But I can’t recall an example of a single can sold for more than a 12-pack inside of the same grocery store.
One example I can recall is a buffet that would charge one rate for unlimited access to their food but would weigh and charge for food left on the plate to reduce waste. But that seems like a stretch.
Airline pricing doesn’t make sense to most of the world because it only truly works for a very limited marketplace. On a route like Boston to San Francisco, the cheapest flight should be the direct route with the lowest cost to the airline. An out-of-the-way connection in Dallas which burns more fuel, more snacks and beverages, more staff to run them, more landing and runways costs, and on and on it should be a more expensive flight. but of course, it is usually cheaper for the customer as they try to incentivize consumers away from their premium direct flights or their competition.
Just because that makes sense for carriers, why should the rest of the world pretend that the Emperor is wearing clothes? He’s not – he’s naked as a Jaybird. If United wants to pretend that their pricing is fair and makes sense, fine, but maybe consumers should also pretend that they are buying last minute tickets to cheap destinations and just got lost in the airport and missed their connection.
The reality is that United (and others) charge excessive amounts for last minute nonstop flights, but will be happy to sell consumers that same seat and another on a less full flight for less money. I won’t pretend that it makes sense. It doesn’t.
Just Because It’s In A Contract, That Doesn’t Make It Enforceable
It’s fair to assume that words written in a contract and agreed by both parties (either implicitly or implied) would hold weight and are enforceable. That’s just not the case, however. Plenty of companies put best case scenario terms and conditions in their contracts knowing they may be tested or unable to hold the other party to the commitment. Non-compete agreements are common cases of unenforceable legal documentation.
In Matthew’s post this week on the topic, he points the failed lawsuit by United against Skiplagged.com, a booking engine that specializes in Hidden-City itineraries. United’s lawsuit was thrown out but a reader identified that it was tossed not based on the merit of their claim but where they chose to bring suit (venue). However, had United felt they had a legitimate case against Skiplagged.com, they probably would have refiled their lawsuit in a new venue. They have not and it has been several years since they brought the original complaint. It’s clear to me, and if their actions are any indication, it’s clear to United that they really can’t do anything about their customers using a portion but not all of their tickets to circumvent arbitrarily higher prices.
How United Can Hurt Their Customers Legally, Easily
Matthew wrote his thoughts about the matter first covered by No Mas Coach last week. In his statements, he mentioned that he would never buy hidden-city tickets on United because he wouldn’t want to chance his million-miler status. That’s an area where the carrier can actually do damage.
The courts have already ruled (many times in fact) that the airlines can do anything they want with their mileage programs, even things that would be illegal for other businesses. They have 100% total control and can choose to ex-communicate members at will. The unnamed accused in the original post would no doubt lose their Mileage Plus miles, status, and could be banned (by using their IDs and names) from ever flying the airline again.
It’s not a public utility, it’s a company and they can choose to exclude customers as they see fit.
So why take the unenforceable route of hollow threats against the consumer? Why not just send a letter telling them why they no longer have miles, status, nor are welcome on your aircraft? It seems to me to be a rogue specialist tasked with determining just such offenders seeing how far they could take the issue and return a real result for their employer. Regardless, they have proven, easy manners by which to damage the customer (miles) or prohibit them from abusing the airline further (barring future travel), why try to extend that to collection agencies?
What do you think? Does the alleged offender owe United anything? Is this a case of a single employee overstepping bounds or is it reflective of the carrier’s overall approach to customers regarding this matter?