Skift Take

Skiplagged founder Aktarer Zaman identified a problem -- the seeming arbitrary nature of airfares -- and attacked it. Now United and Orbitz may eat him for lunch.

Aktarer Zaman, the 22-year-old Skiplagged founder who got sued by Orbitz and United, has a B.S. in computer science, a year’s experience at Amazon as a software engineer, a lot of chutzpah, and an outsider’s view on the insanity of and inefficiencies that characterize modern airfares.

Zaman’s website, which drew the ire of the Chicago-based online travel agency and airline as he outsmarted them with hard-to-replicate searches and deep links, as well as some alleged obfuscation when they tried to bring down the sledgehammer, helps travelers find hidden-city itineraries. These routings enable a traveler to get a cheaper fare by exiting at a stopover without continuing to the final destination instead of purchasing a direct flight to the stopover airport.

Some experienced travelers have long dabbled in booking hidden-city tickets, although they can draw the wrath of the airlines, which bar such practices and can banish them from airline loyalty programs if they are found to be habitual offenders.

The young entrepreneur admits that he doesn’t have enough frequent flyer miles to worry about airline loyalty programs, and he figures it is up to flyers to determine how using his site might impact their relationships with airlines.

Whether that is simply naive, irresponsible or a fresh approach to improving “market efficiency,” as he puts it, Zaman is focused on giving travelers more choice and cheaper fares come what may.

Following the advice of his lawyers, Zaman declined to comment about the ongoing United-Orbitz lawsuit against him, but spoke to Skift about what he’s trying to accomplish with Skiplagged.

Skift: Hidden-city ticketing is controversial within the travel industry. How prevalent do you think it is today? How many people are actually doing it?

Aktarer Zaman: Sure. I believe it’s not very prevalent at all, well at least before Skiplagged. The reason for this is simply it’s really difficult to find these opportunities in traditional services. What you would have to do, as you are probably aware, is guess a final destination and hope that your actual destination is a stopover and then bear with all these searches and see if you are actually getting a discount. It’s something frequent travelers would do because they already knew the routes. They know which will be cheaper and so a very small percentage probably.

Skift: Why do you think it’s a viable alternative for the standard way of booking tickets?

Zaman: There’s really not much to the concept of hidden city: Buy more tickets than we need and just simply throw away the ones we don’t. It’s pretty easy to do for most people. They can actually save a substantial amount of money doing it. It affects people’s bottom line; it is something people are possibly going to do.

Skift: Right. I know you are just a startup but can you say anything about the volumes of people that are using this site to find hidden-city tickets right now? I saw a message on your site that Skiplagged “is facing significantly higher than normal traffic” because of all the publicity.

Zaman: My site doesn’t only provide hidden city; it provides other services as well. I have that message just in case there are some issues. In this very short period of time, the usage has gone up significantly. If you look at the Alexa charts you will see what I mean.

It wasn’t designed for this scale. This past Tuesday alone, over one million people used Skiplagged. Since then it has been in the hundreds of thousands every day.

Skift: What do you say to airlines that argue that hidden city ticketing unfairly disrupts their flight operations in terms of figuring out how much jet fuel to use or leads to flight delays because planes are held at the gate for people making connections who are not going to actually show up. How do you answer that?

Zaman: I believe the operational costs are insignificant here. At the end of the day, they have full control over their destiny. One very obvious way is to reduce their costs to their hub city from the origin… That is one option. It’s something within their control, they have full control over it.

Skift: There are all kinds of arguments. Some people say hidden city ticketing is unethical, or that it doesn’t lead to much savings. How do you answer that?

Zaman: Unethical? I don’t know if I would classify this as unethical. When you are searching for tickets, your market is just to go from this city to this city to this city. And you are shown a price. You are buying this flight when you are buying a ticket. So this is a service you are buying in. Consumers should have the right to partially use the services they buy.

You could think of a bunch of analogies like if I go to college I’m paying for tuition, I’m paying to go to all these classes to ultimately go to my destination, which is a diploma. If I don’t go to a certain class, am I doing something unethical?

Skift: What about frequent flyers who might try this but if the airline finds out about it they could get kicked out of the loyalty program?

Zaman: I’m not really sure about people’s relationships with the airline. I don’t have that sort of loyalty status to be familiar with it. That is really up to them to figure out. I can’t really comment there.

Skift: What are you trying to accomplish with the whole thing? It’s a part-time business for you, right? Is it a business or just an experiment or are you trying to prove a point about the airline industry or airfares?

Zaman: To be honest, it is more looked at as an experience in my eyes. Basically, what Skiplagged is ultimately doing is reducing the cost for accessing information about the travel industry. And what this does is make if harder for airlines to try to discriminate. Since the operational cost is approximately the same what can be affected from what they are saying is profit.

The fact that a lawsuit is filed against me suggests that they think it has a negative effect on profit. Yes, but overall when you think about what’s going on is Skiplagged is helping to improve market efficiency, economic efficiency. Yeah, I believe what I am doing is helping society in a sense, opening up their eyes to what is going on.

Skift: OK. Are the reports true that you are 22 years old? What do you do for your full-time job?

Zaman: Yeah, I am 22 years old. For a full-time job, I work at a startup. So much of my life is public right now I would like to retain at least that part private.

Skift: How did you get interested in doing a startup like Skiplagged?

Zaman: In 2013, I was searching for flights from New York to Seattle and the cheapest option was $170 and had a layover in San Francisco. And then I searched New York to San Francisco and it was $300 and this was the same exact flight, New York to Seattle, so it sparked my curiosity and I discovered other things like two arbitrary one-ways can actually be cheaper than a round trip.

Skift: Do you have any current travel industry partnerships?

Zaman: Sorry, I can’t talk about this as it’s effectively asking how Skiplagged works.

Skift: Do you have partnerships now with Hipmunk and Kayak?

Zaman: No. Those deep links are provided as a convenience to my users. The whole point of Skiplagged is to look out for consumers — that’s just one way to encourage shopping around.

Skift: What’s next for Skiplagged?

Zaman: I’m not sure. The active litigation is effectively paving out where Skiplagged can go.

Skift: Do you want to transition Skiplagged from an experiment into a real business and how can you do it?

Zaman: Yes and I think the trick is to just continue focusing on the users — the business aspect should work itself out.

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Tags: airfares, orbitz, skiplagged, united airlines

Photo credit: Aktarer Zaman, the founder of Skiplagged, is waging a very uphill battle against United and Orbitz. Skiplagged

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