In November, United Airlines and Orbitz filed a joint civil lawsuit against a man named Aktarer Zaman, founder of the travel search site Skiplagged.com. Little known before then, the 22-year-old instantly became a hero to everyone who's sick of paying ever higher fares for an air travel experience that gets worse every year.
First launched in 2013, Skiplagged helps travelers find more affordable airline tickets from United, Orbitz and others via a "hidden city" loophole. This practice involves purchasing a cheaper flight that has a layover at the desired destination and then forgoing the second leg. United and Orbitz claim selling hidden-city trips is a "unfair competition" because it prevents them from being able to sell tickets for the second leg of the voyage.
Zaman, who has a B.S. in computer science and spent a year working at Amazon, is not ready to say sayonara to his product. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, he started a GoFundMe campaign to cover his legal costs and has already raised over $60,000. According to the entrepreneur, Skiplagged is not breaking any laws because it only provides information, linking out directly Orbitz and United's own booking portals.
"Actively trying to suppress knowledge is bad for society," Zaman tells Inc., citing the arbitrary reasoning behind airline ticket prices and "the many tricks websites play to mark up prices such as tracking usage."
Zaman first got the idea for his website after he wanted to book a flight from New York to Seattle with a layover in San Francisco for $170 and discovered that the same direct flight booked from New York to San Francisco was $300.
"It's similar to how sometimes round-trips can be cheaper than one-ways," Zaman says. The entrepreneur has a B.S. in computer science and spent a year working at Amazon. "It didn't feel right to me that all this was going on at the expense of consumers."
Even though U.S. airlines have been just named the least punctual in the world, they are a part of a pseudo monopoly that gives them the power to charge for basic amenities like checked luggage and Wi-Fi, maintain dubious policies when it comes to refunds, designing seats for limited comfort so that passengers are literally bent out of shape into upgrading and even get away with very obvious arbitrary pricing.
In short, Zaman says, "the industry is very far from perfect." Skiplagged may be just one way travelers can regain some ground in this uneven power balance. But then again, some travel experts, including Airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica, point out that if airlines start losing enough revenue from "hidden city" bookings, they'll just find a way to make the difference by raising fares and charging everyone else extra.
"Whatever the outcome of this lawsuit, more people will be buying 'hidden city' fares, and that could either lead airlines to eliminate these lower fares entirely, causing everyone to pay more, or to police passengers more closely and enforce their rules," Hobica writes in USA Today. "It's a no-win situation, and can hardly be the outcome that Skiplagged's founder desired."