United Airlines sues 22-year-old who found a way to get cheap plane tickets

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A young computer whiz from New York City has launched a site to help people buy cheap plane tickets. But an airline company and its travel partner want to shut him down.

United Airlines and Orbitz filed a civil lawsuit last month against 22-year-old Aktarer Zaman, who founded the website Skiplagged.com last year.

The site helps travelers find cheap flights by using a strategy called “hidden city” ticketing.

The idea is that you buy an airline ticket that has a layover at your actual destination. Say you want to fly from New York to San Francisco — you actually book a flight from New York to Lake Tahoe with a layover in San Francisco and get off there, without bothering to take the last leg of the flight.

This travel strategy only works if you book a one-way flight with no checked bags (they would have landed in Lake Tahoe).

It’s not like these tickets are the cheapest all the time, but they often are.

In the lawsuit, United and Orbitz call Skiplagged “unfair competition” and allege that it is promoting “strictly prohibited” travel. They want to recoup $75,000 in lost revenue from Zaman.

Zaman said he knew a lawsuit was inevitable but he points out that there’s nothing illegal about his web site.

He also said he has made no profit via the website and that all he’s done is help travelers get the best prices by exposing an “inefficiency,” in airline prices that insiders have known about for decades.

“[Hidden city ticketing] have been around for a while, it just hasn’t been very accessible to consumers,” Zaman told CNNMoney.

Indeed, “hidden city,” ticketing is no secret among frequent fliers, said Michael Boyd, President of Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting firm in Evergreen, Co. Boyd worked as an American Airline ticket agent 30 years ago, and says he was trained at the airline to help customers find “hidden city” fares.

“I don’t think it’s illegal what he’s doing,” Boyd said. But lawsuits are expensive and it could end up costing the young entrepreneur who has irked the two billion dollar corporations.

Airlines usually offer cheaper fares for some destinations that are not regional hubs, Boyd said. Many of these flights are routed through more popular destinations. But if a lot of people take advantage of that discrepancy it could hurt the airlines, which is why they want to shut him down.

Born in Bangladesh, Zaman grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science at age 20 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He lives in Manhattan and works at a technology start-up that he declined to name.

Zaman said Skiplagged is just a “side project.”

Zaman and United declined to discuss the lawsuit. Orbitz said in a statement that it is obligated to uphold airline fare rules.

Other travel experts say that the airlines may not achieve much if Zaman’s site is shut down, especially in a world where information is becoming more readily available.

“If [Skiplagged is] shut down, undoubtedly there will be other people to come along to scrape fares and make them available,” said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Company, an airline consulting firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

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25 comments

  • Jerry

    Michael Boyd should keep his opinions to himself. Note: he was trained 30 years ago and he doesn’t “think” it’s illegal. As one who was trained to use hidden-city pricing nearly 40 years ago, yes–it was used, but for international pricing only. It was done away with years ago. Airlines also have strict wording in there contract of carriage forbidding this.

  • biztriz

    I fly for work / pleasure often & have gotten off during layovers before. I didn’t know it was named anything; I thought I was just using my resources wisely.

  • DestructoCiD

    Actually it’s not illegal. But you sound convincing, good for you. Maybe know what you’re talking about before you express an opinion.

    • WhitfromATX

      That’s the point. Airlines use regional hubs to get you there. This website only works if your destination is an airline hub.

      My Dad would travel with United, which wasn’t an issue since he lived in Houston, and after his company’s merger, he would give away his American Airlines and Delta vouchers out of pure spite of sitting in Dallas-Fort Worth (AA) or Atlanta (Delta) for 4 hours waiting for the connecting flight. He finally got the new head honchos to open up a United account for him.

  • Wayne Carlon

    What he is doing is EXACTLY WHAT ORBITZ AND THE other travel agencies have been doing for years. The only reason they are suing is that THEY did NOT get the money.

  • Tj

    Well thanks! Now I know how to try to get cheaper tickets! Yay!! And as TSwift says… The haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate… They just mad because they got played!

  • WhitfromATX

    My Dad would travel with United, which wasn’t an issue since he lived in Houston, and after his company’s merger with a new head duck out of Dallas, he would give away his American Airlines and Delta vouchers out of pure spite of sitting in Dallas-Fort Worth (AA) or Atlanta (Delta) for 4 hours waiting for the connecting flight. He finally got the new head honchos to open up a United account for him.

  • g.s.

    This is not any different than buying a bus ticket and getting off wherever fits your fancy…

    The airlines and Orbitz (which I’ll never but tickets from again because of this stupid lawsuit) need to get their act together and offer fair pricing. When fares go 100-400% in a matter of days, and seemingly random for no obvious reasons, there’s something wrong. I’m not buying the “supply and demand” bullshit because I’ve seen even the least popular days ‘ rates fluctuate worse than the stock market.

  • Willum Maquei

    Has anyone who left comments below, actually tried Skiplagged.com and compared it to searching for flights on one’s own? Because, after a little scrounging, I don’t see any significant difference in pricing…Yeah, Orbitz are being buttheads, but who uses Orbitz? I can get cheaper domestic and overseas tickets out of any Chinatown travel agent, in any number of cities…

  • Wahluck

    Lost revenue of $75K is the main reason for the lawsuit, plain and simple. Big corporations cry foul of free market (supposedly, competing to serve the best interest of the consumers) when beaten by its own inefficiencies.

  • straightside

    Technically, whenever one buys an airline ticket, you must agree to that carriers “contract of carriage.” You’ll see it near the end of the purchase process. Every contract of carriage prohibits this behavior, and many airlines use tracking systems to determine individuals who do this often – and many times will void their right to fly on the airline. While not strictly illegal from a legal standpoint, it is expressly breaking a contract and is subject to the airline taking the issue to court on those grounds. Some airlines simply strip all accrued miles from accounts and blacklist the passenger. Is it wrong? Well, airline margins are some of the thinnest in any major industry. A couch class ticket between Dublin Ireland and JFK was $7,000 in today’s money in the 1960’s. Now I can find an economy fare for less than $1000 easily. Airlines struggle to break a 5% margin, and this doesn’t help. So when we complain about legroom and the lack of snacks and baggage fees, people who break contracts of carriage designed to protect what slim margins airlines already have, are part of the problem.
    Source – I fly globally for work and spend more time in airplanes and airports than most people spend at work.

  • ROBERT K.

    What skiplagged.com did, is not an illegal act. People have been aware of this for a long time.Many times while driving I have listened to to the radio programs, where the travel experts have been advising how the people could travel for less, by advising them to book one way air ticket and choose an airline flight which has a Lay over at their desired destination. So, what those passengers were supposed to do, simply to get off the plane and walk away.They didn;t have to take the connecting flight (as they did’t need it).

    If Skiplegged gets a fair trial or a fair jury trial, most likely they are going to win, since they did not gain any profit ou of this.