from the because-you-can't-reveal-the-airlines'-secrets dept
Nearly two years ago, I wrote up an article on some super scammy airline pricing practices I had discovered in the process of trying to book a multi-city trip. Basically, I found that if you go to a travel search site and try to book the entire multi-city trip as a single trip, it would cost around twice as much more than if you booked the individual legs of the trip separately. In the comments to that post, some more experienced travel experts revealed even more questionable airline pricing practices, and even provided a few more tips on how to get even cheaper fares. These days, more and more sites are popping up to help people sniff out these questionable practices and ways around them. For example, I recently learned about FlightFox, which basically gathers up some expert flight bookers, who know all the tricks, and will help you find cheaper fares (you have to pay them, but if they can save you more than you have to pay them, then it’s worth it). While there’s some irony in the idea of basically going back to the age of when an “agent” helps you book your flight, it also shows the power of the internet to get around crappy airline pricing practices.
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:
Some of the claims in the lawsuit are so hyperbolic as to be ridiculous. The claims of problems caused by hidden city ticketing seem greatly exaggerated:
“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
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.
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.
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.
It’s possible that his email telling Orbitz that he would remove it, and then his failure to do so (along with just blocking Orbitz’s own IPs) could lead to at least some trouble in the form of promissory estoppel
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.”
In this case, depending on what was actually said, it’s unclear if this would reach the same “promissory estoppel” level that the email to Orbitz might reach — though he did send United an email saying “United is removed from our services.” It could be argued whether or not that’s accurate.
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.
Filed Under: aktarer zaman, flight pricing, flights, hidden cities, hidden city flights, hidden city tickets, layover, promissory estoppel, skip lag, tortious interference
Companies: orbitz, skiplagged, united airlines