United Airlines does not appreciate passengers who engage in hidden city ticketing. Now it wants airport agents to play a greater role in discouraging this practice…covertly, not overtly.
First, a review of hidden city ticketing. Briefly, United (and all carriers) often charge a premium for nonstop flights. For example, a flight from Los Angeles to Orlando via Chicago may often turn out cheaper than purchasing just the same Los Angeles to Chicago flight alone:
LA to Chicago to Orlando: $120
LA to Chicago (same flight): $171
Examples like the above can be found for every airline. Noticing this trend, many passengers book the connection to Orlando but just get off the plane in Chicago with no intention of making the connection.
This comes with all sorts of risk. You cannot check bags. You also cannot book a return flight. Furthermore, if something goes wrong like a delay or cancellation, airlines will get you to your “final” destination, not the intermediate point that is really your destination.
Although by no means illegal, taking advantage of loopholes like this contravenes the “Contract of Carriage” you “agree” to whenever you book an airline ticket (of course, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis).
The New Memo
First covered by Brian Sumers, United is now asking gate agents to play the part of sleuth and rat out passengers suspected of engaging in hidden city ticketing to United’s corporate security.
I asked a gate agent at United to send me the internal menu. Having reviewed the document, I can say that it is not aimed at simply ratting out these passengers. Rather, it is aimed at stopping gate agents from going rogue. That’s an important distinction.
The memo asks gate or baggage agents to engage in three steps:
- Ask questions and understand the customer’s situation
- Ensure timely return of checked bag(s) to the customer
- Report Hidden City occurrences to Corporate Security
Of course the focus is on #3 and the secret nature of the reporting is arguably more pernicious. But United agents have been instructed to ask questions first and err on the side of caution. People do have reasons for skipping flights and sometimes such reasons are valid (delays, diversions, cancelations, sickness).
United Directs Agents Not To Confront
Whether the customer is guilty of engaging in “Skiplagging” or not, United makes clear that customers should be re-united with their bags as quickly as possible. The problem arises when some passengers engage in hidden city ticketing practices while thinking they can check a bag to an intermediate stop (United and others do not allow this) or skip an outbound leg and still fly the return journey. Agents are instructed:
Our priority is to safely get our customers and their baggage to their final destinations, so always try to understand the customer’s situation and avoid confrontation when handling Hidden City ticketing instances.
While a United spokesperson was quick to remind that “it is against our ticketing policies to purchase an additional segment with no intention to fly,” he also stressed that the main point of this memo was to help passengers who engage in this practice ensure they are not separated from their luggage for longer than necessary.
But, the memo also warns:
Corporate security will handle following up on the situation and taking appropriate action to ensure customers are following contract of carriage rules and United policies. This includes collecting any add/collect fees, if warranted.
And we’ve seen United send bills in the past…
Why I Don’t Engage in Hidden City Ticketing On United
As a frequent flyer on United who does not check bags, believe me, I am often tempted by hidden city ticketing. But I do not do it…and I will not do it. It is not out of respect for United. I’ve argued on several occasions that I don’t buy the origin to destination argument and view a plane ticket as a commodity that you can use as you see fit, partially or wholly.
And while I think United has no legal remedy to combat this practice, it certainly wields a powerful sword: United MileagePlus. I’ve worked hard to earn lifetime status by virtue of flying over one million miles with United and I am not about to jeopardize that to save a few hundred bucks here and there on a ticket. United is well within its right to suspend or close MileagePlus accounts of members who engage in this practice. That’s a risk I am not willing to take.
United’s memo notes that the practice of hidden city ticketing is growing (I blame Lufthansa for that). While I truly do not have any moral reservations about hidden city ticketing, please be aware of the potential consequences as you consider the pros/cons of skiplagging. United will happily re-unite with your bag, but the pain may come later…
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