United Airlines Staff Told To Report Hidden City Ticketing

Filed Under: United

United has just sent out a memo to employees telling them to report customers who they think are taking advantage of hidden city ticketing, which is a practice to get lower airfare.

What is hidden city ticketing?

Airline pricing can be incredibly complex, and often consumers can’t make sense of it. That’s because airlines price airfare not based on the cost of providing it, but rather based on what they think consumers are willing to pay.

That’s why a longer flight may be significantly less expensive than a shorter flight, and why a connecting itinerary may be significantly cheaper than a nonstop itinerary.

Just to give an example, take the below itinerary from Los Angeles to New York to San Juan, which is ~$450 one-way in business class.

Meanwhile if you booked just that same Los Angeles to New York flight, you’d pay $200+ more.

This leads to a practice known as hidden city ticketing. Some people may book that itinerary to San Juan, but actually get off the plane in New York.

Now, there are some things to be aware of:

  • For most airlines this violates the contract of carriage, though it isn’t illegal
  • There are some risks associated with this in the event of irregular operations, if you’re checking a bag, etc.; you can read more about that here

United tells employees to crack down on this practice

In the past United has tried to sue a website that helps people find hidden city ticketing opportunities, but they weren’t successful.

Meanwhile there are situations where United has gone after people who have repeatedly engaged in this practice, though that has happened on a corporate level.

Well, now United is engaging their frontline employees in the war against throwaway ticketing. Brian Sumers writes about a memo that was sent out to employees. A United spokesperson says that this was sent out “to provide a reminder to our employees about how to address issues that arise when customers purchase hidden-city tickets and travel with checked baggage.”

The memo states, in part:

“This practice can potentially offer discounts on airfare and [is] not aligned with United’s contract of carriage. As the practice grows, we need to ensure that we’re both supporting our customers and properly enforcing the contract of carriage rules and United policies.”

United does note that not everyone getting off early on an itinerary is intentionally engaging in hidden city ticketing. There could be situations where passengers have to cut their trip short due to a medical situation, or due to irregular operations. So United tells their employees to “ask questions and understand the customer’s situation.”

So, what should employees do if they suspect someone is engaging in this practice?

“Our priority is to safely get our customers and their baggage to their final destinations, so always try to understand the customer’s situation and avoid confrontation when handling hidden city ticketing instances. Corporate security is better positioned to follow up on the situation and taking appropriate action to ensure customers are following contract of carriage rules and United policies.”

Bottom line

When I first heard this I was a bit perplexed. I feel like most United gate agents struggle enough to perform their basic job duties, let alone to act as some sort of Ben Gurion Airport style security force against hidden city ticketing.

However, this actually isn’t totally irrational. It seems like this is mostly targeted at people who (stupidly) decide to check bags with throwaway ticketing, which can be costly and time consuming for the airline. In those situations it’s smart for United agents to at least note down their concerns. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen, though.

But for those engaging in throwaway ticketing without checking bags, it doesn’t seem like there will really be any context in which frontline employees can get involved.

Comments
  1. I’m laughing at United thinking their employees on the front line can identify, in the chaos of operations, a passenger who will simply not continue their journey to the final ticketed city.

    I do it to Europe all the time. I do not check bags. I don’t joke or talk about it. I mix and match carriers each trip so as not to develop a one carrier pattern. Are United employees going to be trained to make eye contact with every passenger and look for suspicious down turned expressions that scream “hidden city violator!” What, my outfit will look more like a Paris one than my final of Budapest and thus set off alarms?

    This is stupid and United is wasting their time. I think it’s optics in trying to scare the millions of us that do this…because they know in reality that they built the archaic system that allows it and have hardy any way to stop it unless a passenger does it every week continuously on one carrier.

  2. Why is should be costly for the airline if the passengers checks the backage to the final destination but leaves the plane earlier? He asked the airline to fly it to the final destination and the airline did so. It should be the responsibility of of the passenger to get his baggage. Its not good what United is doing here but the “wonderful” 5*Hansa even sued passengers who did this.

  3. @Mark, airlines will not fly with unaccompanied baggage. If someone checks bags and then doesn’t board the plane, the bags need to be located and offloaded before the flight can depart.

  4. @Mark Honestly, who the heck would check their bags knowing they are flying under Hidden City loopholes? That’s like robbing a bank and handing the teller your ID. Anyone who does that deserves to be caught for stupidity. As well the person who uses hidden city fights every week on the same one carrier…much like robbing the same bank over and over.

  5. I’ve only done one hidden city ticket, but it saved me $327. I was trying to fly from Cincinnati to Chicago, which was $476 one way. Booking Cincinnati to Denver (via Chicago), however, was $149. That was a no-brainer!

  6. @Duane. This almost never happens on U.S. flights any more. If it goes through checked baggage screening here it passes TSA and does not have to be offloaded. Which is why if you are on standby your bag will go on the earlier flight and beat you there. I am speaking of U.S. domestic though. But again, who the heck would ever check their bag on a hidden city fight?

  7. @Duane

    Am I imaging all those years I flew into FAT and my bags flew in the next day (or day after)? Airlines fly unaccompanied bags all the time.

  8. Didn’t Spain or Italy have a very logical court case about this; that if a customer paid for a trip, they have every right to use each segment/seat as they want (as in start or end wherever in your itinerary?)

  9. As Lucky said, this memo appears to be more positioned for dealing with customers who check bags through, and then go to an agent at the gate or the baggage office to ask United to claim their bags at the “hidden” intermediate city. Rerouting bags in transit, or shipping them back if they have been already been loaded onto the second flight, is costly and time-consuming.

    Most hidden city ticket travelers will never go to a United agent. When there are IRROPS, customers can generally rebook themselves on their choice of connecting flights.

  10. @Ben — gate agents know the inbound fligth of every late passenger and can easily report those who didn’t show up — if they want to (airline employees seem to do what they want). If United had not underinvested in IT they could automate this.

    The bag comment is nonsensical to me as well.

  11. this is all nonsense. if a customer doesn’t want to continue their journey to their final destination they have every right to do so. they could decide in their connecting city that they feel ill and just want to cancel the rest of their journey. purchasing a ticket does not obligate a passenger to utilize the full ticket. this is such a tiny problem for united in the grand scheme of things that it baffles me why they care so much.

  12. Its also my experience on domestic flights that bags are not offloaded if a passenger misconnects either for some other reason or in the case of a hidden city. The positive bag match rule I believe is only on international flights. All the checked bags are TSA screened.

  13. @Stuart , Late boarding groups are forced to gate check if overhead bins are full.
    Well planned simple carry-on bag could also create an issue. Pack smarter to fit under the seat.

  14. I flew southwest from IND-DC-NYC… My gf was in DC and planning to take Amtrak to nyc and meet me there, however amtrak service was down for couple of days due to accident. Luckily southwest agent was kind enough to check me to DC only with no no show fine on the DC-NYC leg.

  15. @Jasper I only book hidden city in either Business or when in coach and know I will have early boarding because of status. For the reasons you mention.

  16. Meanwhile, they gave this so much attention that it became “newsworthy” and thus causes other folks who didn’t know about hidden city ticketing to actually start the practice.

    They’d be better off ignoring the practice of the very small minority of flyers that actually do this compared to the number of flyers they have everyday.

  17. I hope these folks are discovered and jailed by the UAL police
    At the very least dragged off a plane bloody
    Soooooooo glad I left as a United 1K many years ago never to return

  18. Imo United should create a computer program that flags all no-show connection passengers. If your flight arrived with plenty of time to make the connection, a no-show should be flagged.

    Those customers that receive multiple such flags over a given period should be investigated by corporate security.

  19. Do it too much on the same airline and your frequent flyer account could be cancelled and you lose the miles. Various reprots of that happening on Flyertalk.

    So don’t do it too often and mix up your airlines

  20. what you also need to consider is irregularities. if you book say Los Angeles to San Juan via New York There’s a delay on the first flight so delta reroute you via Atlanta or on American via Miami

    Good luck when you receive an email a few hours begin departure

    : dear mr Smith we regret that your flight to New York has been delayed
    We don’t want you to miss your connection to San Juan so rebooked you in America airlines via Dallas departing and arriving exactly the same times
    Don’t worry , we’ll still credit your
    Skymiles

    Your contract is LAX SJU so you can’t ask them to reroute you to New York

    There are no direct flights lax sju therefore it’s lower than the lax jfk to compete with all the other carriers flying to Puerto Rico

    I know from an unfortunate experience, that Air France and klm have this in their t&c’s. If you want to collect bags at Paris or Amsterdam they charge you €275. If you fail to use your outbound journey they charge €500 to use the inbound

    Airlines do have this integrated in their systems and can check this

  21. @CF Fost – Exactly correct. If they spend some money on IT they will eventually quash this and make money in the long run.

  22. Money saved on the ticket could be spent on a pair of slacks & a couple of blouses. New wardrobe for free.
    Pack your meds, underwear & shoes on carryon

  23. Ben,
    I think you meant to say the opposite here…

    “That’s why a longer flight may be significantly more expensive than a shorter flight….”

    Because that would negate the whole reason to hidden ticket in the first place. 😉

  24. It is easy for staff to catch hidden city ticketing, at least for international flights to the US where passengers are questioned. “Have you packed your bags yourself?” “Have you accepted anything from anyone?” “Are you using hidden city ticketing?” Bingo, problem solved.

  25. Actually it is very easy for an airline agent to spot……we know what cities are commonly used because of no show.

  26. Thinking gate agents and flight attendants will notice passengers skip-lagging is preposterous. Last week I flew Emirates, and not a single flight attendant saw a very sick man hobble onto the flight leaning onto his teenage son. The man looked as if he was close to death. According to his son, he had hepatitis.

    After notifying the flight attendants, he was off-boarded. If the gate personnel and flight attendants didn’t notice a man who looked like he belonged in the hospital, the likelihood that they will see a hidden city ticket is absurd.

  27. Once I had to ditch the connecting flight because I felt ill. I did not continue the next flight, but got a hotel room in the airport, to stay in fetal position on the bed for the rest of the day. Next day I had to buy another flight to final destination.

    Monitoring who missed the flight is not an indication someone used hidden city. There could be multitude of reason why someone missed the connecting flight.

    Asking front staff to enforce something they can’t know for sure, is putting them in a very difficult position. Actually it is quite laughable that someone could even come with such nonsense. They need to come with a better plan

  28. In the example used above, when the airline is trying to reroute you, couldn’t u say you have a meeting in Jfk with someone and then plan to fly to SJ if airline tries to reroute you? After all, there is 4 hour layover?

  29. U.S. airline employees already love the feeling of being on a power trip. Looking forward to United employees falsely accusing people of hidden city ticketing because they want to go on a power trip.

  30. once again people abused something and the airline needs to crack down. I honestly doubt that employees who can’t enforce carry on rules would worry about this

  31. Please excuse my naivety, but why wouldn’t the airline simply adjust their computer algorithms to eliminate hidden cities during ticketing?
    To me it seems a little like parking your car and leaving your keys in the ignition only to cry after you discover someone drove away with it.
    Now we all know that when you take something that isn’t yours, it’s called stealing. However when you invite the thieves to take from you, it’s called stupidity.

  32. Why don’t airlines sell tickets at appropriate prices then in the first place, eliminating the need for this? It’s also ironic how they think they can rob you but don’t like it the other way around!
    Oh well, that’s the corporate world and consumers have eaten it up… good on those naughty hidden city flyers!

  33. Apart from checking bags (which is stupid), the one problem I have with hidden city ticketing is that more often than not, they spend time at the gate looking for missing pax. I don’t feel good about making a whole plane wait, so whenever I skip a leg, I make a point to actually notify the airline that I won’t be taking the next flight as I feel unwell so they don’t delay the flt. I’ve been on a flight once where I personally knew one of the pax was skipping that particular leg, and they stalled the departure for a few mins looking for him.
    Also, what do you think of KLMs procedure to charge 260-odd Euros to pax who have checked bags and skip a leg for whatever reason (so they have to pull the bag off early in AMS)? While clearly intended to discourage hidden city ticketing, I can imagine legitimate situations where somebody might be actually I’ll, then being charged money to pull off the bags. KLM also doesn’t short check bags as per policy. I honestly think that the “lost revenue” that occurs with hidden city ticketing needs to be viewed as “cost of business”, and then also, I don’t believe it is actual lost revenue as it is a bit stupid to think that those ppl taking advantage of fare oddities would otherwise just happily pay whatever amount the airline would have charged them.
    Much better idea and less hassle to not limit short checking and not consider the price differential “lost revenue”. Saves a lot of disgruntled pax and also litigation, see Spain/Italy. I absolutely would sue a carrier if I fell ill on a flight and they attempted to charge me some fee for baggage handling or not taking a subsequent connection, esp if I had made a point of notifying them ASAP instead of just not showing up.

  34. One thing you don’t mention is some airlines will cancel the remaining portions of your flights if you fail to show for your connection. So you do run the risk of losing your return reservations if you booked any kind of discount fare. It may only be worth it if you find a round trip excursion fare that is cheaper than a one way full fare.

  35. Changing passenger’s behavior best works by charging them. Airlines only need to install check-out devices at the exit of the secured area on hub airports. Cases of medical issues or delayed/cancelled flights, can easily be verified.

  36. Ken Brock, I believe the web site you enquired about is “skiplagged”, and it appears to still be in operation.

  37. If concerned I would go to the connecting gate and tell them you feel sick and need to see a doctor. May not be as good an option if traveling with a family. Honestly it’s not likely an issue for the airlines in many cases. Delta domestic flights are always full so there are likely people on stand by that can fill the seat. The high traffic routes will always be more expensive than a longer route that is not as high in demand.

  38. If I pay for a ticket and do not check any luggage then where I deplane among the stop overs is no one’s business but my own. I have never done this but thanks for the info.

  39. This is absurd. There is certainly no financial LOSS to the airline if you don’t continue the journey. This whole pricing structure is just a huge flim-flam. Why do I need to be complicit in the airline’s quest for extra revenue at MY expense? If I had my way, we’d re-regulate and fares would be STRICTLY mileage based. Problem solved. Airlines would be annoyed, but would be a huge win for consumers.

  40. This has more to do with forcing passengers to pay the higher fare based on their real destination. So if the airlines are going to enforce this requirement, then they should be fined each time they over-book a flight.

  41. Another issue is that these fairs are often the fares with boarding zones that are the last get on, after bin space has been filled. Have you ever heard the announcements: “The remaining bags must be checked”? Well, they will be tagged to that final ticketed city (not the mid stop). As it is easy to confirm the passenger did not board the final leg, the bag will go to the final city. Shipping it back is not the responsibility of the airline in that case. Now what do you do?!?!?

  42. Context matters. I’ve seen the memo, and it’s basically guidance to agents to ask questions before delivering checked bags at airline expense for hidden city engagers.

    Customer are able to pick up the bags at the airport for free, or pay a delivery fee.

  43. how is this any different than if i buy a pizza and decide to eat half of it and throw the reso of it away??

    or if i buy any product and only use it once or only use it half way, i do not understand the airlines stance on this, THEY HAVE ALREADY MADE THE MONEY ON THE TICKET WHETHER THE SEAT IS OCCUPIED OR NOT.

  44. John: and that is why the court decision in Spain, which essentially declared that IB must not punish pax for not showing and must keep the rest of their itinerary (as they would be in breach of contract otherwise) is something I hope sticks in other jurisdictions as well. People buy a ticket, so they must be able to choose whether or not they want to use all or part of it.
    I think it might be reasonable to penalize no show at a connection without telling the airline (waiting for late stragglers is annoying for every pax) and mandating in the general conditions that pax tell the airline as early as possible + have their bags checked accordingly. There should be a waiver for medical reasons as well.
    I had business meetings changed at short notice, and playing by the rules, it would have required my company to spend 400+ EUR on a new ticket A-B-C instead of just buying one from B-C and having me use an existing ticket A-B-D up to the B point. Quite idiotic as they had already paid for that flight.

  45. @nightliner and people on this forum and frequent fliers are doing this intentionally to defraud airlines There are exceptions of course , but if you don’t show up for your outbound then why would the airline assume you would travel inbound. That’s o e cause of overbooking
    As for hidden cities , frequent fliers like to scam airlines and invent all sort of fake stories

  46. @icarus I wouldn’t call it “scamming”. It’s more like and incentive use of their pricing.
    I think it’s wrong of the airlines to assume everyone is going to pay say 500 USD for A-B when A-B-C is available for 150.
    When I did this, I’d always only skip the last leg. And re: outbound no show: true, they don’t need to assume that. But it should be ok for the traveler to tell them he’s not going to take the outbound, but would like to keep the inbound. Pax has paid for the entire thing, so airline has been fully compensated already – in fact, they can re-sell the seat on the outbound. I don’t think that’s fraudulent.

  47. Although it may not be requested by management, employees at at least one other airline already do this. Agents who suspect intent to misuse the ticket will add a note in the passenger’s record. If the passenger later requests bag delivery or other accommodation (including re-routing), the new agent will base the assistance on the passengers TICKETED destination.

  48. i have been using hidden city ticket since 1983 when i flew from atlanta to la for the Super Bowl using legs 2 and 3 of a RT ticket from miami on Eastern. My whole family does it. I send my teen age kids on trips this way. I have had flights cancelled, offered non-stops, etc., and NEVER had a problem. Always board early. NEVER check a bag. and always buy one way.

  49. I’m a bit surprised by some people’s attitudes on the topic. Airlines price destinations based on demand for that destination and what people will pay; some places higher, others lower. It’s just business, and all businesses do it. But in the case of airlines, just by the nature of hub systems, you might have to pass through a higher demand place (a hub) to get to a destination in less demand.

    Think of it like a theater, one with high price seats in front down low and low price seats up high in the back. In this theater, people sitting up top have to pass through the lower, more expensive seats to get up to theirs. Hidden city ticketing is like buying a cheap seat in the theater up high, but just sitting down in the better seats down low when passing through. Is it possible? Yes, in some cases. Is it what the theater wants? Definitely not. Is it ridiculous that the theater wouldn’t want you to do that? I would think not. Is it ethical? You be the judge.

  50. @brent: I disagree on that comparison. It’s like a theatre selling you a play with or without a snack before, and sometimes, the snack plus ticket deal is cheaper – they then impose a rule that if you don’t eat the snack, you lose your right to the seat.

  51. Just buy all your tickets with a point of sale in Italy, then you are protected against any post fare difference calculation. The supreme court there has ruled that you are allowed to skip as many segments as you wish, airlines are not allowed to cancel any following segments or ask for any payment. Easiest way to buy something in Italy? Just use expedia.it

  52. While living in Munich, I booked and paid for a rental car for a visit in Atlanta. The package included insurance.

    When I picked up the car, I was told that the package rate did not apply because I’m American. I pointed out that I was an official resident of Germany. However, because the credit card I used to prepay was for a US address, they would not honor the insurance package, offered only to non-US customers. Pleas to management had no effect.

  53. If airlines are using dynamic pricing to utilize their income, passengers have every right to exploit this loophole to save some money from this greedy pricing scheme.

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