United Airlines Sues Man, 22, Over 'Hidden City Pricing' Website

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on January 02, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Here's a hypothetical double standard: Airline companies have complex fare systems, designed to be complex, so that you can't really compare what you're paying for. Different classes of tickets have different restrictions, some of which are obvious, and others of which aren't. That's perfectly fine.

Then, a regular person comes along, finds a loophole in this Byzantine fee structure, and now the airlines are suing.

Hidden City Pricing

Surprise! Not a hypothetical. Aktarer Zaman, 22, exploited a bug (or is it a feature?) in airline pricing. Traveling from a major airline hub to another major airline hub (New York to San Francisco, for example) is significantly cheaper than traveling from a hub to a smaller city (like Reno -- though it is the "biggest little city").

This One Simple Trick, which travelers have exploited for years, involves booking a trip from New York to San Francisco, with a layover in Reno, but exiting at Reno. Zaman is being sued because he created a website called Skiplagged, which searches the airlines' own websites, returning the airlines' own documented prices.

Gaming the System

TechDirt isn't too sold on the causes of action in the lawsuit, all of which boil down to interference with contractual relations. The airlines claim they'll lose business if people use this technique, but the problem is that people have been doing this for a long time -- and the airlines seem to be doing fine (or, at least, they're doing just as badly as they always have).

Here's the gist, GCs: The business team may have thought they've come up with an ingeniously complicated pricing structure, but for some people, a complex system is just an invitation to game that system. Airlines have come perilously close to calling "hidden city pricing" stealing. "It is tantamount to switching price tags to obtain a lower price on goods sold at department stores," American Airlines said in a statement.

That's good for PR, but it's not actually stealing. It may violate the terms of carriage (though that's still debatable, too), and airlines routinely void frequent flyer miles when they suspect travelers are doing it. They also reserve the right to blacklist passengers who make a habit of it.

Oh, and one more thing: There's nothing illegal about linking to a website's own information. Airlines that don't want customers to know about their practices are best advised not to engage in those practices. (Also, people just don't like airline companies.)

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