A popular European online travel agency has promised to pay your legal fees if an airline sues you for throwaway ticketing. Or maybe not. Let’s take a closer look.
Last week I wrote about Lufthansa suing a passenger for engaging in throwaway ticketing (sometimes called hidden city ticketing). For more background on what throwaway ticketing is, read that story first. That bold (but counterproductive) move from Lufthansa has made headlines around the world. It has also prompted a new guarantee from Kiwi.com.
Let’s breakdown an email Kiwi.com sent to customers this week.
With the recent news that airlines are continuing to sue their own customers, we’re extending our protection. Now, if you book an itinerary with Kiwi.com and an airline unreasonably decides you’re in breach, we’ll reimburse the amount claimed back, your legal costs, or provide assistance.
Actually, only one airline sued. That’s Lufthansa. Note the help they promise to provide is at their own discretion. “Provide assistance” is a nebulous term.
This is clarified further in the e-mail:
We will provide You with the below-specified assistance in situations when a legal claim is brought against You by the Selected Carrier in relation to Your Booking due to the alleged breach of the Selected Carrier’s contractual clauses which are considered as unbalanced, disproportionate and/or abusive. These conditions include, among others, the practices commonly known as “throw-away”, “back to back” and “hidden city” ticketing. We believe that these and similar contractual clauses are disproportionate and thus shall not enjoy legal protection.
In case the Selected Carrier brings a lawsuit against You claiming a breach of these contractual clauses, We will:
(1) Reimburse You the costs of Your legal expenses related to such legal proceedings; or
(2) Assist You in the legal proceedings and provide You with the aid of our legal advisors who are experienced with claims of this nature; or
(3) Reimburse You the amount claimed by the Selected Carrier in relation to the alleged breach of its contractual clauses.
The choice of the appropriate and most suitable method and scope of Our assistance will be done upon Our discretion following a previous consultation with You.
In order to provide You with the above-specified assistance, We need You to contact Us immediately after You are contacted by the Selected Carrier when they claim such a breach. And You must provide Us with all the relevant information and necessary cooperation so that We are able to find the appropriate solution to Your situation both timely and accurately.
Again, option two can mean many things. “Assist” is a broad word. So is “aid”. I don’t trust it.
Oliver Dlouhý, Kiwi.com’s Chief Legal Officer, also very carefully hedged his promise:
The legal situation related to certain airline’s conditions of carriage is confusing and complicated for travellers, and it is hard to foresee certain legal outcomes of their travel behaviour.
We hold a rather liberal point of view because we trust in free will and the right to free choice in respect to the use of the product customers purchase from service providers, including airlines.
We think that customers should have the liberty to choose whether they will use the service and to what extent, without the risk of being penalised.
In this regard, we offer them our aid in the case they are sued for exercising their right to free choice.
Aid can mean something as little as moral support.
See, I don’t think other airlines are going to come after you for hidden city ticketing. But I see this announcement as nothing but a PR gimmick from Kiwi.com.
My Trouble With Kiwi.com
I once booked an intra-europe flight from Hamburg to Munch on Lufthansa on Kiwi.com. It had a throw-away segment to Bucharest on it. This was a couple years ago and perhaps the company has changed, but nowhere was the connection to Bucharest listed on the itinerary from the company when I bought the ticket; I was only told I could not check bags. So when a second boarding pass to Bucharest popped up during online check-in, I was surprised. Granted, I knew to play it cool and looked at it as an opportunity to use the Senator Cafe in Munich after my flight from Hamburg. But I can imagine many passengers would have freaked out if they found that they were suddenly “traveling to” Bucharest instead of Munich.
I’ve also had a couple smooth booking experiences with Kiwi.com for intra-Asia routes, so I am not totally dismissing the agency. I just don’t like that sort of non-transparent business practice. Perhaps it has changed?
Still Be Careful…
While I have no moral qualms with throwaway ticketing, please keep the following risks in mind:
An airline has three primary ways to discourage hidden city ticketing. First, it can refuse to “short-check” bags to an intermediate stop, making it impossible for any passenger to travel with a checked bag when skipping a flight. Second, most legacy airlines already cancel the remainder of segments when one is missed. So if you book Dublin – Frankfurt – New York – Frankfurt- Dublin and skip the Dublin to Frankfurt flight, the rest of your itinerary is instantly cancelled. That means only the last segment(s) can realistically be skipped, diminishing the value of many strategic booking opportunities.
Lastly, and most importantly for any passenger of long-term value, airlines can cancel your loyalty account or in certain circumstances ban you from the flying the airline. I tend to think that would be a wake-up call to many. It’s rather tough to avoid an airline if its hub is near your home or business…
I’m skeptical about Kiwi.com’s latest offer. While I truly don’t think airlines are going to come after you for throw-away ticketing, even if Lufthansa wins its case, I also don’t believe Kiwi.com really has your back if something goes wrong.
(H/T: One Mile at a Time)