Skift Take

Skiplagged's hidden-city practices are screwing up Orbitz's relationships with airlines so that's one reason for the lawsuit. Another factor is that startup founder Aktarer Zaman has been outsmarting his adversaries at every turn.

When Orbitz Worldwide and United Airlines finish suing Aktarer Zaman, the 22-year-old founder of Skiplagged, they might as well hire him because, as they admit, the wunderkind has outsmarted the two companies every step of the way.

Zamon operates Skiplagged, which enables flyers to book cheaper flights by deplaning at a stopover instead of continuing on to the ticketed destination, and his crowdsourced defense fund has so far raised more than $50,000 on GoFundMe.

Skiplagged finds “hidden city” tickets, and uses creative ways that frustrated the tech geeks, especially at Orbitz, to deep link to Orbitz, United, and other sites so travelers can book the flights.

“To counteract Zaman’s conduct, Orbitz is continuing to investigate ways in which it may detect customers originating on Skiplagged and prevent the hidden city bookings from being made on the Orbitz site,” according to the suit [embedded below], which was filed in November. “Nevertheless, Zaman’s repeated variation in redirection strategies and his use of technical approaches like the ‘meta refresh’ technique have frustrated Orbitz’s efforts. Injunctive relief will be necessary to ensure that Zaman does not further alter his software in an effort to circumvent Orbitz’s corrective actions.”

Zaman figured out ways to refer users off to, sometimes showing only one search result for a reduced-fare hidden-city itinerary that the lawsuit states regular Orbitz customers couldn’t do.

And, according to the suit, after Zaman promised to discontinue linking to Orbitz, he blocked Orbitz IP addresses on Skiplagged so that Orbitz investigators thought he had obeyed a cease and desist letter when in reality he hadn’t.

“Orbitz believed and relied upon Zaman’s promises and believed for a time that Zaman was complying with his promises based on several tests from Orbitz computers that seemed to show that Zaman had complied with his promises,” the suit states. “As such, Orbitz initially refrained from bringing this lawsuit.”

Not Just a Matter of Competition

The lawsuit states that the travel agency contracts of many airlines, including United, American, US Airways, Delta, British Airways and Iberia, for example, bar hidden-city ticketing.

Zaman is streamlining a technique some savvy travelers have been doing for years. For a traveler intent on flying to Houston, it is often much cheaper to book a Cleveland-Houston-Phoenix itinerary and to get off at Houston than to merely book a Cleveland Houston flight, but airline contracts with travel agencies prohibit such ticketing.

That doesn’t stop some travel agencies from booking these flights for their clients, but it is a dicey practice subject to penalties, including a cancellation of their contracts with the airline.

The lawsuit reveals that Orbitz isn’t merely worried about getting undercut by a competitor and losing a few flight bookings, but Orbitz fears getting spanked by airlines for violating their mutual contracts.

“As a result of Zaman’s conduct, Orbitz Worldwide has suffered and will continue to suffer damage, including but not limited to remedies available to commercial airlines in the agency agreements and the costs of investigating Zaman’s wrongful conduct,” the lawsuit alleges.

United, meanwhile, argues that Skiplagged’s hidden-city practices could lead to the airline to permanently lose customers when flights erroneously show they are full, but actually have seats available that could be sold because passengers got off the flight at a layover.

The airline also alleges that hidden-city ticketing can lead to flight delays because aircraft might be held at the gate for passengers who have decided not to continue on to the final destination, and the practice interferes with flight operations such as figuring out the proper amount of jet fuel needed for a flight.

An Illogical System

Zaman of Skiplagged faces an uphill fight in his battle against the two Chicago-based travel companies to keep his website running because their affiliate agreements, agency contracts, and terms and conditions bar hidden-city tickets. [The Orbitz affiliate agreement is embedded below.]

Skiplagged hasn’t yet filed an answer to the Orbitz-United complaint, but took questions about the suit on Reddit a month ago.

But Skiplagged may pick up some public support, as evidenced by the GoFundMe campaign, because of an illogical hub and spoke system that finds it cheaper to book a trip to an onward destination than to a closer one.

Then again, who said airline flights and fares have anything to do with logic?

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Tags: airfares, orbitz, skiplagged, united airlines

Photo credit: Skipplagged finds "hidden city" itineraries that airlines don't want flyers booking. Skiplagged

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