Aktarer Zaman has mostly won his court battle with United Airlines and Orbitz after a judge threw out the case, according to court documents Zaman shared with Business Insider.
He’s not completely out of the woods yet, though.
“The reason for dismissal is technical, rather than merits, which means the judicial system isn’t stopping United from trying again unfortunately,” he wrote on his GoFundMe campaign, that raised money for his legal fees.
It all started when Zaman built a website called Skiplagged as a hobby.
Skiplagged searches out cheap airfares, particularly a type of cheap airfare called Hidden City that is frowned upon by the airlines.
After discovering Skiplagged, United and Orbitz filed a lawsuit trying to shut it down.
Instead of bowing to the lawsuit, the 22-year-old computer wiz fought back. He fired up a GoFundMe campaign and asked for people to help him pay for his legal expenses.
He was asking for $US20,000 but after his story went viral, people donated nearly $US80,000.
Hidden City travel is when you book a longer flight that includes a layover to your real destination because it’s cheaper than flying direct. You travel with carry-on and you get off the plane during the layover.
Although anyone can search and book their own Hidden City flights, it’s a time-consuming mess to search through many cities, hoping to find a cheaper flight that has a layover at your true destination.
Skiplagged does that searching for you. And finding such a flight isn’t a given. Often it tells you that there are no lower-cost Hidden City flights available that fit your travel needs.
Travellers feel that this is a perfectly legit way to travel: They have paid for the flight — why does the airline care if they sit in the seat the whole time?
But airlines hate this practice. They argue that booking a flight like this makes it difficult to track passengers and that it unfairly takes advantage of the hub-and-spoke nature of airfares, where airlines fly to hub cities and add connecting flights from there.
If the airline discovers that you are getting off the aeroplane at a layover, they might cancel the ticket without refund. They may do other things, too, like void frequent-flyer mileage.
“This practice violates our fare rules, and we are taking action to stop it to help protect the vast majority of customers who buy legitimate tickets,” a United spokesperson told us when it filed the suit in December. (We’ve reached out for comment about the suit’s dismissal and will update when we hear back.)
Zaman explained that his site merely shows the airfares, it doesn’t book the tickets. “I haven’t made any money from this,” Zaman said. He’s been paying for the costs of the website out of his own pocket.
At the time of the suit, an Orbitz spokesperson told us that Zaman had found a way to help Skiplagged‘s visitors book the flight directly on Orbitz.
“Skiplagged had developed technology that provided a direct link to our booking engine. So when it had identified a hidden city itinerary there was a ‘book now’ button that the customer clicked, directed them to Orbitz and then we processed the transaction not knowing the intent of the customer,” a representative told us. “We asked Skiplagged to disengage that link but they originally declined. We have since blocked the link and I believe the link to Orbitz is no longer displayed.”
The Orbitz representative also told us if some airlines catch a passenger on “a hidden-city routing, that ticket will be voided consistent with published fare rules and a refund will not be authorised.”
The representative explained, “While some independent operators might encourage consumers to try to break ticketing rules, we have an obligation to uphold airline fare rules and also protect consumers from making purchases that could be invalidated.” (We’ve reached out to Orbitz and asked for an updated statement, as well.)
When word got out about the lawsuit and the website, the attempt to shut it down backfired. and Skiplagged became instantly popular.
“Oh boy. Never thought Skiplagged would be accessed by over a million people in 1 day!” Zaman told Business Insider.
The site is still up and running right now, with features such as the ability to watch for cheap tickets.
The site also includes a “Book now” button and a warning that tells people they are being sent off to another site to book their tickets that has nothing to do with Skiplagged.
Zaman doesn’t know if his legal battles are over, or not, but he’s as optimistic as ever.
“I hope my experience with Skiplagged inspires many to pursue what they believe in, even if it’s a little unnerving. These may just be things you look back and smile about the most,” he told Business Insider.
And on his GoFundMe blog post he wrote: “The public really supports what Skiplagged is doing, which is increasing access to information for a more informed society. What’s also clear is that attempting to hinder this seems to backfire. It will be interesting to see what happens next.”
Here’s a chart posted by Skiplagged that shows how often Hidden City fares are cheaper than longer fares on a flight in August between Seattle and New York.