Should Airlines Honour Skiplagging?

Airlines are taking an increasingly harsh stance towards the practice of skiplagging, filing lawsuits for lost revenue against a number of individuals in the past couple of years. But why do airlines feel so strongly about this perfectly logical way of reducing the cost of your flights?

A Lufthansa A380 during takeoff.
Lufthansa is one of a handful of airlines who have taken customers to court over skiplagging. Photo, Kiefer – Flickr

If you’re already familiar with skiplagging, also known as hidden-city ticketing, chances are you’re already familiar with the problems that can arise if you’re caught doing it. However, it’s not the police you’ll be in trouble with. Although it’s perfectly legal, most airlines have clauses written into their terms and conditions which prohibit customers from gaming the system in this way.

Skiplagging works by taking advantage of the discounts airlines apply to flights with a stopover in order to encourage more passengers to use them. In some cases, it’s cheaper for a customer to buy a flight with a stopover at their intended destination than it is to get a non-stop flight to this same place.

This allows them to deplane at the stopover destination and simply never take the final leg of the flight.

Do airlines have a right to prosecute customers?

As we reported yesterday, United Airlines recently issued an internal memo to its staff urging them to help identify and stop skiplagging customers.

United Airlines jets in flight
United Airlines has adopted a particularly harsh stance towards skiplagging. Photo, Bill Larkins – Flickr

This is the latest in a series of moves designed to actively discourage, prevent and even fine customers for skiplagging. Back in 2018 United tried to fine a customer several thousand dollars for doing so on some 38 flights.

Lufthansa also attempted to fine a customer €2,112 plus interest for skiplagging the return leg of a flight from Oslo to Seattle via Frankfurt. But, the case was thrown out as the court could find no clear reasoning behind the airline’s claim amount.

This lack of success for airlines when it comes to prosecuting skiplaggers has been a common trend, especially in Europe.

Back in November 2018, the Spanish supreme court ruled that skiplagging was legal. This means that Iberia, the only carrier affected by the ruling, is now obliged to honor skiplagged tickets.

Similarly, Italy implemented a change in its law to protect customers accused of skiplagging. As a result, many airlines now have policies in place which exempt Italian customers from regulations related to skiplagging.

An Alitalia A319-112 landing at Frankfurt airport
Italian air customers are protected from skiplagging penalties under Italian law. Image, Tobias Nordhausen – Flickr

Who is in the wrong?

In the eyes of the law, customers have every right to skiplag their flights. As long as they have paid for them, they are entitled to do what they want. This has made it hard for airlines to achieve any sort of success when it comes to winning skiplagging-related damages.

It’s not just customers that airlines have attempted to strong-arm using this tactic. In 2015, United Airlines and Orbitz sued the founder of the website Skipplagged.com for $75,000 of lost revenue.

Aktarer Zaman’s site scours airline websites to find cheap skiplagged deals. But the airlines were once again unsuccessful in their attempts to recover what they see as lost revenue. Many analysts are unsympathetic with the airlines’ cries of foul play, as their obfuscated pricing principles clearly encourage customers to get creative when it comes to finding a good deal.

In an interview with the BBC, the founder of travel research firm Atmosphere Research, Henry Harteveld, said,

“Hidden-city ticketing is a problem of the airlines’ own making.”

Perhaps it is down to airlines to ensure their ticket pricing is more representative of the actual costs of a journey, rather than expecting passengers to pay extra out of respect for the airlines’ bottom line.

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Matt

The airlines are such hypocrites. It’s against the rules for you to miss a flight you fully paid for, but it’s perfectly fine for them to sell one seat to multiple people. I know Southwest says that it shouldn’t be possible on their airline. More need to follow suit. If I didn’t care about frequent flyer status, I would do this every time I fly from Seattle to Detroit. SEA>DTW is usually three to four times SEA>DTW>ORD with the first leg the same exact flight. I also laugh at their contract of carriage banning this. I don’t remember signing anything.

Gretna

Caveat emptor. Attorneys call these contracts of adhesion, aka “take-it-or-leave-it” contracts. In other words, input your credit card and you agree to all 51 printed pages of United’s binding clauses or all 69 pages of Virgin America’s document. Don’t swipe, and you don’t fly. Such contracts can be found on the airlines’ sites, if you search hard enough. from Delta: “Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Delta may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket at any time.… Read more »

Matt

A business has the right to refuse service , but an unsigned contract is not enforceable in court. That’s why they can’t win an actual lawsuit.

Kate Nathan

What is not reported here is that when it is a travel agency (with own Iata license and payment method via BSP), which issues the ticket, the airline simply helps itself to the “correction” amount from the agency’s bank account by issuing the agency with an ADM (agency debit memo). This is an non-disputable debit document against which the agent is helpless, despite the pax behaviour being beyond the agency’s control. This, for me is an even worse scandal.

Norman

Henry Harteveld is absolutely right. The airline offered a fare, it was accepted and paid for, and the airline made a small extra profit by flying with an empty seat (or even re-selling it if they were over-booked). Blatant humbug!