There’s been a surprising outcome to the decision last year by United Airlines and the giant online travel site Orbitz to sue a 22-year-old tech whiz-kid for using “hidden city” connections to provide cheap air tickets through a website.
The site, Skiplagged.com, exploits the hub-and-spoke system used by many airlines.
Now, it seems the mighty US airline and online travel agent, said to be worth USD 21 billion between them, have backed down after their legal action did not go as planned.
Aktarer Zaman, who has since turned 23, refused to surrender when United Airlines and Orbitz sued him.
The two travel giants accused Skiplagged of exploiting the hidden-city loophole, which derives from the practice among airlines of often charging more for popular routes like Chicago/Paris than for less popular, longer, multi-connection routes like Chicago/Dubai. The site works out such routes and steers users to cheaper tickets. The trick is that the passengers just get out at the “hidden city” stopover and don’t take the final leg.
Airlines frown on the practice or ban it outright, considering it fraudulent. According to news site Bloomberg, carriers say they will void a ticket without refund if they catch travellers trying it. In any case, travellers can only use it if they travel without checked baggage.
Zaman fought back last year, putting a note on his website calling for help to raise funds for a legal battle, with the plea: “Consumers, Skiplagged needs your help! United Airlines and Orbitz recently filed a lawsuit that can force us to remove results only we find, getting in the way of saving you lots of money on airfare. Please support Skiplagged by donating to our legal fund here. Thank you!” See: United and Orbitz sue ‘hidden city’ cheap airfare website
The online plea worked. Zaman wanted USD 10,000 to help pay for legal fees and lawyers. Donors gave him over eight times as much: USD 81,000.
According to CNN Money, Orbitz backed out of the case and settled with Zaman last February. United kept pursuing it until a judge in Chicago ruled in May that Skiplagged wasn’t in his jurisdiction and dismissed United’s case. United has pursued no further legal action against Zaman.
Zaman put this to good use, proclaiming on his site: “We’re so good, United Airlines actually sued us for it.”
Zaman has now hired two full-time software engineers, rented office space in Manhattan and received investment funding. Visits to the site have soared fourfold to a million a month, CNN Money reports, and Skiplagged has become one of the most popular travel apps in Apple’s store.
Written by Peter Needham