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United Airlines and Orbitz are suing a 22-year-old who discovered a hack to get cheap tickets

United and Orbitz have filed a lawsuit against Skiplagged.
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
While you can’t find “hidden city” tickets on the departure board, lays it all out.
By Zainab Mudallal
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If you’re a frequent flier, you know all about air travel hacks. Whether it’s when to book the cheapest tickets, or how to get out of an airport the quickest, hacks make their rounds among travelers. 22-year-old Aktarer Zaman made it easy for travelers to engage in a very specific hack on his website, Skiplagged, by helping them buy what the industry calls “hidden city” plane tickets.

Not everyone is happy.

United Airlines and its travel partner, Orbitz, want to shut the website down. They filed a civil lawsuit against Zaman last month, claiming the “malicious” strategy creates “unfair competition.” They’re asking for $75,000 in damages, according to the companies’ complaint filed today in Chicago federal court (pdf).

The idea of “hidden city” ticketing is simple. Travelers buy tickets for a multi-stop flight that has a layover at their actual destination. They deplane at the layover, and skip the final leg of the flight. Often times, a plane that stops in a hub city on the way to another location is cheaper than a ticket to the hub city alone. It only works if it’s a one-way ticket and the passenger has no checked bags.

By gathering and displaying these cheap airfares on its website, Skiplagged stands accused of promoting “strictly prohibited” travel. Christen David, a spokesperson for United, told Quartz this ticketing method is banned in the airline’s contract of carriage. United says passengers who skip out hinder its ability to estimate head counts, which can lead to miscalculations of how much jet fuel is needed for each flight, and delays on connecting flights when they wait for “hidden city” passenger to show up. And it must irk the carrier that customers might resort to another airline if United appears to be full, even though there are empty seats on the second leg of the flight.

Orbitz got aboard the suit because Skiplagged redirects customers to Orbitz’s website to book tickets. Tim Enstice, director of government affairs for Orbitz Worldwide told Quartz it asked Skiplagged to take down the direct link because it violates airline policies, which they are obligated to uphold.

Zaman told CNNMoney that he makes no profit off of his website and that there is nothing illegal about it. (Quartz reached out to Zaman for comment and will update this post when we hear back.)

Shutting down the Skiplagged website won’t stop passengers from using the method. As Zaman points out, ”hidden city” ticketing is no secret among passengers; industry vets have known about it for ages. And experts say other people are likely to make the information readily available.

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