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United and Orbitz sue 22-year-old for website that exposes “hidden city” ticketing

United and Orbitz sue 22-year-old for website that exposes “hidden city” ticketing

Contractual breach or a quest to squash the little guy?

United Airlines and the popular travel site Orbitz, joined mega corporation forces to sue a 22-year-old Brooklynite.

Aktarer Zaman created and runs the site Skiplagged.com. He claims he makes no money on the venture.

Skiplagged utilizes hidden city ticketing. While not always the cheapest way to fly, often times hidden city ticketing can produce a significantly cheaper flight. Suppose you want to fly to Denver. A direct flight might be pricey depending on where you’re coming from. But, if you were to book a flight to San Francisco that connects in Denver, and simply get off in Denver (hence, “hidden city”) ditching the last leg of your flight, you may find you are able to reach your desired destination with a little extra cash in your pocket.

Caveats do apply. For hidden city ticketing to work, flights must be booked one-way, and unless you want your bags to have their own vacation, checking a bag isn’t optional either.

Needless to say, airlines are not fans of the gimmick. All kinds of stipulations and contractual obligations listed in the fine print of plane tickets explain why.

Hidden city ticketing is an old trick, but Skiplagged succeeded in making the little known ‘discount’ readily available. So much so, air travel behemoths are out to crush the site.

CBS This Morning reports:

United and Orbitz claim Zaman is engaging in, “unfair competition” and “tortious interference with contract” and that he is “intentionally and maliciously interfering” with their contracts and course of business.

There’s also an issue of permission that at least on the outset, appears to be pretty cut and dry.

The complaint states:

Zaman has provided and continues to provide a search tool that enables consumers to locate “hidden city” flights on Skiplagged and then purchase tickets for those flights through Orbitz’s website (www.orbitz.com) and United’s website (www.united.com). Neither Orbitz nor United has granted Zaman permission to engage in this prohibited form of booking or to otherwise offer their services. To the contrary, Zaman expressly agreed not to engage in this conduct when he entered into an affiliate agreement with Orbitz, LLC in early 2013. Orbitz, LLC has since terminated that agreement. More recently, Zaman agreed to stop engaging in this prohibited form of booking, only to continue the conduct unabated. At the same time, Zaman has taken steps to try to hide from Orbitz and United his continued bad conduct and breach of his promises to stop.

Zaman hosted an “Ask Me Anything” question/answer session on Reddit where he explained his case and provoked a rather hilarious comment thread.

To help with the legal costs, Zaman launched a Go Fund Me page which implores consumers:

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. Please show your support for Skiplagged by donating towards this campaign to help fund our legal team.

To date, Zaman has raised over $18K of the $25k he’s requesting.

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Comments

I suppose a lot depends on the terms of the ‘affiliate’ agreements that he entered into. However, I doubt the terms of those agreements can dictate his behavior after they are terminated, which it sounds like they are.

This sounds to me like the airlines are peeved that someone is exposing the fact that their pricing schemes are devised to squeeze maximum revenue out of the traveler. They employ incredibly sophisticated pricing algorithms to determine what to charge for any given seat in order to maximize profit. That somebody else is employing similar data analysis techniques in order to foil their price maximizing strategies must really piss them off.

Tough tittie says the kitty.

Airlines have been skiplagging for at least 35 years that I know of. They charge you more to fly a shorter distance, and less to fly a longer distance. I never understood the business plan there.

    rorschach256 in reply to snopercod. | December 30, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    most of the costs are involved with the first and last mile of the trip. the takeoff and landing fees, the extra fuel burned at low speed/altitude, the extra fuel required for climbout, the baggage personnell, etc. so it makes sense that if you have to amortize the costs over a shorter distance then the relative cost per mile will increase.

      What you say makes sense, but there is also a major element of “what the market will bear” in their pricing decisions. They take into account competitor routes and pricing, historical demand, what “type” of flyer they think you are, and many other factors in setting their pricing.

      2nd Ammendment Mother in reply to rorschach256. | December 31, 2014 at 4:45 pm

      I would disagree with you on that point – . In this instance, the passenger is paying their portion of the costs for the entire flight. When you have 1 or 2 stops on the way to your destination, the take off/landing fees for each airport is a part of the ticket cost. Since these travelers are not carrying bags, there is no baggage handling required to transport them. And arguably, since there is conceivably a fuel savings to the airline in the reduced weight of the passenger/baggage on the unused legs of the flight. Granted that’s a tiny dollar amount, however consider that airlines make a big deal in factoring the cost of an overweight passenger the opposite must be true when there are fewer passengers than anticipated.

      There is also a profit opportunity. The lower fair for the further destination was likely a factor in whether the passenger chose to travel by air or land at all; therefore represents a ticket that most likely wouldn’t have been sold in the first place. The airline also has the option of moving up standby passengers and offering open seats to passengers waiting for later flights.

      The areas where I see a cost (aside from the less expensive ticket) are in dealing with paging a passenger who won’t be getting on the flight and probably some headaches from TSA (now that’s an argument I’d consider listening to from United but not Orbitz).

I recently wanted to fly from Detroit to Myrtle Beach. The only flight was through Charlotte. If I just flew direct to Charlotte anyway (and rented a car for an hour’s trip), the fare was less than half the price (including the rental). Luckily, the trip was cancelled. If you ask me, the airlines deserve it!

    celsius1939 in reply to Amazed. | December 30, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    I think you need to get your facts straight. It is at least a 3 hour trip from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach.

      I’m sorry my point was not up to your standards. My point is that there are arbitrarily different fares for the same trip. My apologies for your intransigence.

        Doug Wright Old Grouchy in reply to Amazed. | December 30, 2014 at 6:12 pm

        Facts do matter, even for those who claim to have “good intentions!”

          2nd Ammendment Mother in reply to Doug Wright Old Grouchy. | December 31, 2014 at 4:59 pm

          Not to condone incorrect data by the poster, however, she does have a valid point regarding combining air travel into a lower cost airport with a short drive …. but it’s pretty common for people in El Paso to fly into Austin or San Antonio and drive to Houston, and other south Texas cities for less $$$ and more efficient flight times.

It appears that United included a jury demand in its complaint. Not sure how smart that was. I would expect that they would do better before a judge. How are a couple of billion dollar companies going to get any sympathy with a jury against a guy who isn’t making any money on this website?

Seems pretty simple to me.

This is your typical smart-ass millennial who thinks he’s being cute.

He’s been called on his game, and he (according to the complaint) agreed to knock it off. He continues to use Orbitz and encourage breach of contract against United.

As to you y’all who grouse about airline pricing, start your own, get the ones in business to change, or stay-the-FLUCK off commercial flights.

But IF you fly on their amazing service, have the integrity to abide by your contract with them.

    mike01001 in reply to Ragspierre. | December 30, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Amen to that. United and Orbitz have an agreement that this guy will operate in good faith and he says ‘I changed my mind’. I would fly with United or book on Orbitz before I gave a nickle to this guys legal defense.

not sure now (I stopped getting the FAA notices) but there may also be a tsa/dhs issue here.

Phillep Harding | December 30, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Well, I know what “Theft of services” is, but “Failure to use services”?

    Yah, no. This is just fundamental breach of contract, and, since you KNOW your intent to breach, it’s FRAUD.

    The airline offers to fly you from point A to B for price Z. You accept their offer. A classical contract is formed.

    But it’s a contract you have no intention of honoring. Instead, you INTEND to fly from A to C, which you KNOW the airline offers to fly you to for price X.

    You are KNOWINGLY lying when you enter the contract, and that is what fraud is about.

      filiusdextris in reply to Ragspierre. | December 31, 2014 at 3:53 pm

      What are the airlines’ damages for a customer being absent from his seat on the last leg of the journey that he had a right to be on? Those would seem hard to prove. If he had decided to get off early, forcing him to stay on against his will would amount to slavery, right? One person pointing out to others all their options in life is hardly illegal, or at least should be covered by the First Amendment.

        Ragspierre in reply to filiusdextris. | December 31, 2014 at 6:26 pm

        I’m fascinated by the ease so many of you rationalize this fraud.

        What are the damages? If you can’t answer that, you’re an idiot, and I don’t think you’re an idiot.

        Although, you did say, “If he had decided to get off early, forcing him to stay on against his will would amount to slavery, right?”.

        So…

          filiusdextris in reply to Ragspierre. | December 31, 2014 at 8:29 pm

          Slavery is illegal under the Constitution? Even if you have a defensible position here, why stick your neck out for uncharitable greed by private enterprise? Matthew 6:24. Why slander him in tone with irrelevancies like “smart ass” and “millennial” and “idiot”? How does this help your position? The resort to name calling suggests you cannot win a substantive argument. And, finally, I do not see the damages here. If the absence of someone from an airline on the final leg of a trip is damages, how many damages have I accrued against the airline for skipping air travel altogether?

        Ragspierre in reply to filiusdextris. | January 1, 2015 at 4:30 am

        Look at the knots your position requires you to twist yourself into!

        First, you attack ME for my choice of descriptors. Pure ad hominum bullshit.

        Second, you need to go into gnat-straining mode. How do you prove damages? How do you prove a lie?

        We’re not talking PROOF. We’re talking your OWN integrity, which apparently is sorely lacking.

        Damages, in court, are really quite easily proven. And several different ways. The FIRST and most OBVIOUS is that the airline ONLY offers to fly you to point C for price X. You have, by your FRAUD, beat the airline out of the delta between price Z and price X, which is WHY you lied about your intent. You have INTENTIONALLY stolen the value via your fraud.

        Zamen didn’t lie, except if the complaint is true and he agreed to stop his little game. And, of COURSE one pretty much ALWAYS “commits” speech in the course of committing a tortious interference with contract, just as they do in aiding and abetting a fraud.

        If you do this, YOU LIE. Not Zamen. I can prove that very neatly by reviewing your browsing history, among other means.

        But, REGARDLESS of what the law can do, YOU are essentially stealing using a lie to facilitate your theft.

        I am appalled so many of you can rationalize this. Or TRY.

        Ragspierre in reply to filiusdextris. | January 1, 2015 at 4:49 am

        “Even if you have a defensible position here, why stick your neck out for uncharitable greed by private enterprise?”

        Well, I was wrong. You ARE an idiot.

        First, yours is the indefensible position. You are supporting a theft by fraud.

        Second, I am a free market capitalist. I don’t consider offering a service at a price people CAN afford ANY kind of “greed”, but especially not “uncharitable”. I consider YOUR position to be manifestly greedy, and the opposite of “charitable”. I won’t steal to support “charity”. Indeed, the thought is disgusting. I won’t lie to cut a corner. You apparently warmly approve of the practice.

        Third, I believe down to my toenails in private enterprise, but I may, in fact, be a minority here. Which is a revelation! Apparently, some of you think it’s OK to lie, cheat, and steal…if you find your victim unsympathetic or “big”.

        THAT is a gob-smacking SELF-indictment you have made.

          filiusdextris in reply to Ragspierre. | January 1, 2015 at 6:50 pm

          Even to the extent one can prove fraud, I think it’s arguable that the proximate cause of all damages, so-called, is the illogical pricing scheme that encourages such behavior.

2nd Ammendment Mother | December 31, 2014 at 4:03 pm

If I buy a #3 Combo at Whataburger and don’t use my drink cup or hand it (unused) to someone else in line, have I violated a contract? I’ve also bought a full gallon of milk for $3.29 instead of the 1/2 gallon for $2.89 knowing full well that I’ll probably feed the unused portion of it to the hogs. I paid for an item and if I didn’t use all of it, it’s my concern.

IMHO, I don’t see the service as any more of a problem than something like Google Flights. He’s not doing anything that a person who’s knowledgeable about how flights are mapped couldn’t do for themselves. The difference is that he’s saving them several hours of research and making that same information available to people who don’t have that type of knowledge. In fact, the first time I heard of doing something similar was years ago from travel agents who needed to get clients to odd destinations.

I had to do some crazy bookings a couple of times this year for my youngest son in the Army. In one instance, the guy in charge of approving his leave didn’t do so until three hours ahead of when he needed to leave and we couldn’t book a ticket until he had that approval.

To book the only airline that would get him from Newport News Virginia to El Paso Texas on a single ticket was going to run close to a $1000 with 22 hours en route. With a little help from Google flights, I was able to compare lots of alternate routes and connections. Once I found the set of flights that would get him home, I went to each airline’s website and booked those flights. I ended up booking him on 4 different flights on three different airlines for less than $400 total and got him home in 9 hours (including 5 hours sleeping by his gate in Atlanta overnight). It was a huge hassle for him to pick up and re-check all of his duffles and gear, but he was only hit with a bag fee by one of the airlines. (Yes, that’s you I’m thinking of United – and you were a little rude about it, when he already had his wallet out and wasn’t going to argue the issue with you.) When he reported to Baltimore for his flight to Germany, we were able to send him all the way on Southwest (which isn’t listed on Google Flight) for about $200 – and no bag fees.

Just this past weekend, a family friend who flew in for the holidays, volunteered to drive with their daughter back to California, cancelling the other half of his ticket that he’d purchased during Southwest’s last airfare sale for $99. How many times have we heard about folks who are in the midst of a cross country trip when some type of incident causes havoc across the entire flight map leaving passengers stranded? I’m fairly sure we all came name a couple of dozen acquaintances who’ve abandoned part of an airline ticket, rented a car and drove home.

Where I think the “angst” from airlines comes in is with security issues when they suddenly have a dozen passengers who don’t make their connection for which they must account.

In the long run, I’m in favor of anything that helps Americans use their time and money more wisely. As more airlines reduce the number of flights and prices continue to be out of reach of the casual traveler, we need more services that offer us choices that fit our schedules. The message here is that the industry isn’t meeting the needs of travelers. Airlines are heavy users of data in determining travel habits and such to base their pricing on, however they have a variable that they can’t measure which is the traveler who compares the cost/time of flying to driving and chooses driving in order to leave/arrive and alter plans according to their preferences. There’s a reason my suburban has 264,000 miles on it.

    “I’ve also bought a full gallon of milk for $3.29 instead of the 1/2 gallon for $2.89 knowing full well that I’ll probably feed the unused portion of it to the hogs. I paid for an item and if I didn’t use all of it, it’s my concern.”

    But you didn’t LIE to get your gallon of milk, did you? You DO NOT pay for the flight you…in fact…TAKE.

    Your analogy works if you stipulate that you carry a gallon of milk to the cashier in a bag, and tell them it’s a half-gallon and pay for that.

    When you LIE your way into a contract, THAT is fraud.

    Cripes, people…!!!

      filiusdextris in reply to Ragspierre. | December 31, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      This assumes you can prove lying. You might have a case against him, but certainly not for the practice in general. But, what specifically, was his lie that you can prove?

      2nd Ammendment Mother in reply to Ragspierre. | January 1, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      I’ll respectfully agree to disagree. I don’t think that purchasing an “airline ticket” is a more elevated experience than purchasing a #3 Combo. It’s a product/service – no more, no less. When I buy the gallon of milk, I already know that it is likely that I won’t be using all of it. I’m knowingly lying to the clerk when I buy it and I’m selfishly keeping a half gallon of milk from being sold to another customer for $2.89 on the off chance that I might use a little more milk this week.

2nd Ammendment Mother | December 31, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Just because I’m snowed in today and like to be a dog with a bone…. I can give a great example of how the airline industry is currently not meeting it’s customer needs. 10 years ago it wasn’t a big deal for me to fly 3 or 4 employees to a job. Even with a little bit of added cost for large equipment, it was a good value in terms of cost and safety. I did that every month for several years. TSA was the first thing that slowed us down. My guys were missing flights waiting for their camera and lighting gear to be inspected repeatedly. Then, it started getting more difficult to get direct or time efficient flights resulting in extra hotel nights. Next was the baggage fees that (for us) were about the same cost as additional passenger seats. (You don’t even want to hear about what my musician friends who buy seats for million dollar cellos go through.)

Finally, the math didn’t work anymore – At the same time, clients began expecting us to eat travel costs rather than pass them thru because they were under fire to do the same jobs with fewer dollars. So, we bought a suburban and trailer, paid an extra staffer to do the driving and broke even on it the first year.

For myself, I probably used to purchase 10 – 12 discretionary tickets a year for myself and the kids. Other than those that are necessary for my son the soldier, I haven’t purchased a single ticket for anyone since 2007. Driving is just cheaper and more convenient.

(There is even a pretty good story about American screwing up one of my son’s tickets returning from his first leave from the Army a couple of years ago. The ticket was issued with an incorrect flight time on it and the counter agent was making us 6 kinds of nervous with comments that she couldn’t rebook him for 4 days and such. While she fumbled around his brother and I did the math and started making phone calls so we could drive him back to Missouri and get him to his unit on time.) Finally, she found the magic button and ended up getting him on earlier flights that I hadn’t been available when I booked the original ticket.)

This thread is full of folly. As a consumer of goods and services, you aren’t entering into a contract…you’re buying a ticket and it is your choice to use all of it, part of it, or none of it as you damn well please.

The airlines are just union-bloated gasbags; this just further proves how disastrous their business plans have become. You can holler and scream all you want, Rags, and I usually agree with you. On this, though, I laugh at the airline (or give them the finger)…but I don’t really like to fly anyways.

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