Why United Airlines And Orbitz Are Suing An Entrepreneur Who Helps People Find Cheaper Flights
from the because-you-can't-reveal-the-airlines'-secrets dept
Another such site is Skiplagged -- a site that focuses on finding what's known as "hidden city pricing." This is when you book a flight where the layover city is your real destination, but the flight is still cheaper than if you flew directly to that city. For example, if you wanted to fly from New York to San Francisco, booking a direct flight would be more expensive than booking a flight from New York to Reno -- but which has a layover in San Francisco. So you book the NY to Reno flight and just leave when you get to San Francisco (just make sure you don't check your bags). The site, Skiplagged, has built a clever search engine to sniff out those kinds of deals. I only just heard about it via a post on Boing Boing noting that the 22 year-old entrepreneur who runs the site (as a side project from his day job), Aktarer Zaman, has been sued by United Airlines and Orbitz over the site.
The claim seemed so ridiculous that I did some digging and pulled up the actual lawsuit [pdf], which is well worth reading. Zaman also did an interesting Reddit AMA about a month ago after the suit was served (incorrectly, on his mother). The lawsuit makes a bunch of claims that just seem unlikely to stand up in court -- but there are also a few details left out of all of the press coverage (a few of which may -- slightly -- harm Zaman's case).
The airlines make a really big deal about how "hidden city" traveling breaks "the rules." But, for the most part, the rules in question are for the travelers -- and Zaman didn't agree to them. So, instead, Orbitz and United are going with a "tortious interference with contract" claim, arguing that Zaman is interfering with Orbitz's agreements with airlines. There's also an "unfair competition" claim -- though it's hard to see how that makes any sense at all when all Zaman is doing is accurately showing flight pricing that is available via airlines' own sites and search engines like Orbitz's.
The lawsuit relies heavily on the fact that Zaman signed up for Orbitz's affiliate program, and, in doing so, agreed to abide by Orbitz's terms of service. In response to this, Zaman (in his AMA) notes that he only was exploring the affiliate program and didn't actually use it (in part because it wouldn't work in a way that fit Skiplagged's service). In fact, he posted a screenshot showing a grand total of six (six!) impressions and zero orders via his Orbitz affiliate account:
"Hidden city” ticketing also causes irreparable harm to United’s relationships with prospective customers. Any time a passenger foregoes a leg of travel, the passenger essentially takes away a seat that could have been sold to a prospective United customer. The prospective United customer may switch to another airline as a result, especially if his or her desired flight is full. In such case, United likely would also lose ancillary sales for other services, such as car rentals and lodging, and a number of disappointed customers may switch from United for all future travel if United’s flights are consistently “full.” United has no adequate remedy at law.Yet, it turns out that people do this all the time. If you look on various travel guru sites, lots of people discuss this trick, and people appear to use it all the time. The "damage" done to airlines seems minimal.
Orbitz also makes some ridiculous claims about how people using Skiplagged and ending up on Orbitz's site for the booking will somehow automatically assume an agreement between the two sites:
To the average internet user of Skiplagged, the transition from the Skiplagged site to Orbitz’s website is seamless and strongly suggests an affiliation or identity between Skiplagged and Orbitz that does not exist. Indeed, online travel agencies such as Orbitz enter into agreements with airlines to use and publish the airlines’ data, all with the prior consent and cooperation of the airlines and according to financial terms that compensate all parties involved. By creating a website that operates in much the same manner as an online travel agency, and by linking that site to Orbitz’s site, Zaman is attempting to confuse and mislead the public into believing that his website, and the “hidden city” ticketing it employs, is done with the approval (if not the outright authorization and sponsorship) of Orbitz and the airlines.That seems like a massive stretch. To the average traveling public, they won't be aware of any such deals and will assume (mostly correctly) that Skiplagged works like any search engine, linking to websites and information on the open internet with no direct agreement with those sites. That's not illegal.
Even more ridiculous is Orbitz's argument that because Zaman uses meta-refresh to get people to the right page for booking, Orbitz's team of engineers can't figure out how to block him. If I were a developer at Orbitz, I'd be insulted by this:
[W]ith the help of a redirector service, Skiplagged redirects users to the unique Orbitz URL when they select “Book Now.” This redirection process is accomplished through the use of an antiquated html technique called “meta refresh.” In its most basic form, a “meta refresh” will automatically refresh the user’s current web page after a specified time interval. With a few tweaks of the html code, “meta refresh” can also be used to automatically transfer users to a new page on a different website. This is done by instructing the browser to fetch a different URL and setting a low refresh time interval. Here, Skiplagged instructs the user’s browser to refresh automatically to the unique Orbitz URL that Skiplagged’s program has identified.This all seems to assume that "deep linking" is illegal. But it's not. And just because this 22-year-old on his side job is able to outwit Orbitz's team of computer programmers doesn't suddenly make what he's doing illegal.
When Zaman causes the redirect to Orbitz, he also causes the user’s computer to initiate a pre-populated search utilizing his algorithm to cause searching on Orbitz’s site that would not be replicable by the typical user or otherwise through authorized use of the site. Once on the Orbitz website, because of the Zaman search (conducted without the user’s knowledge) the user is presented with the exact flight itinerary that was selected on Skiplagged. This is akin to “deep linking,” which transfers a user to a specific, indexed piece of web content on another website, rather than the website homepage. Just as with “deep linking,” Zaman uses the “meta refresh” and related algorithm to seamlessly transfer a user from Skiplagged to Orbitz’s site, which creates the impression that Skiplagged and Orbitz are partners or one-in-the-same.
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. 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.
Where it gets slightly trickier for Zaman is in his pre-lawsuit dealings with Orbitz (and possibly United). The lawsuit claims that when approached by Orbitz's lawyers, Zaman agreed to stop linking to Orbitz, but then proceeded to just block Orbitz's IP addresses, so that when people at Orbitz's offices checked it looked like he was blocking Orbitz, but everyone else could get there:
On the same day, Zaman responded to Orbitz Worldwide by email and promised to “stop redirecting users to Orbitz and partners by end of business week.”
Zaman, however, did not stop redirecting Skiplagged users to Orbitz, but instead has blocked Orbitz IP addresses from accessing the Skiplagged website. Starting on or around October 2, 2014, when Orbitz personnel attempted to perform a search on Skiplagged, they received an error message that read “Sorry for the inconvenience, but Skiplagged is unable to process your booking request.” Zaman, in other words, was trying to hide his improper conduct from Orbitz, so that he could go on redirecting Skiplagged users to Orbitz’s site, without Orbitz’s permission or knowledge. 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. As such, Orbitz initially refrained from bringing this lawsuit.
Separately, Zaman and United's lawyers had a conversation where Zaman agreed to "remove all United references" on Skiplagged. And here he got creative. Whenever a United flight showed up, he wrote "censored" and had a notification that said "Sorry for the inconvenience, but United Airlines says we can't show you this information."
On the whole, the lawsuit really is ridiculous. Suing this guy for showing accurate information about flight prices seems tremendously questionable. However, the situation is complicated somewhat by Zaman's promises to both companies. No matter what, it's well known that airlines play really obnoxious fare-pricing games, and Zaman was trying to shed some light on it with a simple side project. And, really, if your entire business can supposedly be undermined by a 22-year-old kid in his spare time accurately showing the prices of various flights, perhaps the real problem is with your business model, and not with the kid.