United Airlines sues 22-year-old who found method for buying cheaper plane tickets

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[FILE] United Airlines jets are parked at the terminal at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois on Oct. 25, 2013. Credit: Ricky Shine/CNN

[FILE] United Airlines jets are parked at the terminal at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois on Oct. 25, 2013. Credit: Ricky Shine/CNN

By Patrick Gillespie for CNN

NEW YORK – 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,” Robert Mann said, president of R.W. Mann & Company, an airline consulting firm in Port Washington, New York.

138 comments

  • Warren

    Seems unbelievable that the price to the furthest away destination would actually be cheaper than the flight to the mid point? I don’t get that at all. Does this work for both flights that just stop enroute to a final destination, as well as flights where one has to change planes at the hub to get to the final destination?

    • sir

      might be unbelivable but it is what it is. No different then when Delta says SFO-LAX is sold out but if you want to fly SFO-HNL all of a sudden that same SFO-LAX flight has a seat available.

  • jojok

    Didn’t these m*r*ns realize that by suing this kid, they would given a tremendous amount of free publicity to his relatively unknown website? Now, it will have the exact opposite effect of what they intended. Even if they win or force him out of business, 10 other sites will pop-up in it’s place. Don’t these corporations ever learn?! They must have used the same lawyers that represented the RIAA/MPAA… lol

  • Sam

    Maybe if these airlines weren’t completely ripping people off then people wouldn’t have to find sketchy ways to save money.

  • Ben

    WOW…United and Orbitz shouldn’t be suing a kid for helping people save money. It was never lost revenue because you can’t lose what you never had or what you could have received.

  • John Voice

    I’ve know about this for decades. They have no case against him. Any entrepreneur mind has thought about this before. It’s not rocket science, just persistence on the part of the seeker. $%ck United….

  • Dennis

    This will also help the people that are on stand by waiting for a flight. When someone doesn’t show up after there layover, someone else can get that spot. I think it helps everyone

  • Marc

    I cant believe how expensive flights are with gas prices plunging. I know I didn’t pay as much in prior years for the flight I am currently looking at. Buffalo – ATL one way is $210. Buffalo – JAX one way with a stop in ATL is $115. Absurd pricing tactics

  • Andrew Nygard

    It’s called monopolistic pricing folks – the fact that airlines feel free to price like this says they have too much market power in their hubs and can essentially set prices, and/or signal prices to their “competitors” in those markets. If anyone should be looking at this practice it’s the FTC and the Justice Department – and their focus should be the carriers, not the entrepreneur.

  • Roobah Fox

    Court argument should be that he assisted the airlines with earning even more money, since the continued flight did not hold the passengers expected for the entire flight, the ongoing flight was more fuel efficient. Further, the airlines aided the practice by allowing the passengers to get off the plane at “their” intended destination. The only thing Zaman did was exercise free speech by exposing inefficient opportunities.

  • briang123

    If I were the kid I would 3rd party in the Republican Party, who are the real criminals that have given free reign to big corporate America. Flights have become too expensive, especially for women,mchildren, minorities, and gays, who no longer can afford to fly like Republicans can. The Republicans are the real criminals here, and they deserve to be held accountable.

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