United Airlines Threatens to Trash the Credit of Passengers Who Skip Purchased Flight Segments

By Gary Leff

You may be able to save hundreds of dollars on a one-way fare buying an itinerary that connects in the city you actually want to travel to, and never taking the flight beyond that city to the final destination on the ticket.

This technique is most useful when you are flying to an airline’s hub city since they’ll have connecting flights beyond the hub. Just pick a (usually nearby) city to fly to where fares are cheaper, likely because of competition from low cost carriers or because there’s less business travel.

Hidden city ticketing is not illegal (and the New York Times “Ethicist” endorses it), but it’s generally against airline rules, and there are some basic practices you need to follow to make sure you or your bags don’t wind up in the wrong city.

  • You’re buying a ticket from A to B to C, where A to C is cheaper than buying A to B, but getting off in B.
  • You can’t check bags or else they will go to C.
  • In the event of weather or cancellations, an airline may want to reroute you to C via a different connecting city (“D”).

Airlines see themselves as selling you a ticket from A to C, rather than a seat on a plane for A-B and also B-C where you have the right not to sit in the B-C seat.

Generally speaking customers have been fine provided they followed these guidelines:

  • Don’t check bags
  • Don’t put your preferred frequent flyer number in the reservation
  • Be prepared to explain the need for your original routing in the event of flight delays and cancellations
  • Only drop the last segment of your itinerary
  • Don’t do this super regularly

Travel agents who do this regularly for clients can get ‘debit memos’ — requiring them to pay the difference in fare (or risk losing their ability to issue tickets on the airline). Individual flyers generally aren’t forced to pay up.

However United apparently wants to change that.

United tried to shut down website Skiplagged which helps customers find hidden city ticketing opportunities but their efforts went nowhere in court.

No Mas Coach reports on United’s effort to go after customers specifically that utilize Skiplagged to fly hidden city itineraries on the airline.

RE: Notice of Claim Pertaining to Point Beyond Ticketing and Demand for Reimbursement

Dear [….],

It has come to United Airlines’ attention that on multiple occasions you have violated the “Prohibited Practices” outlined in Rule 6 of United’s Contract of Carriage.

United identified 38 instances since January of 2016 where you engaged in “Point Beyond Ticketing,” which is the unauthorized purchase of a ticket to a destination more distant than your actual destination. As shown below, the last segment of each ticket was not used. By including the additional segment, you were able to purchase your ticket at a lower fare. Please note that no irregular operations were involved in these itineraries to prevent you from making the connecting flight.

…Such conduct constitutes fraud and a violation of Rule 6 of United’s Contract of Carriage. Accordingly, United demands that you cease and desist these unauthorized practices immediately and that you reimburse United in the amount of $3,236.76 which represents the difference between the cost of the tickets that you purchased and the cost of the travel taken, within 10 business day of receipt of this letter.

Please remit payment directly to me via credit card or a check made out to “United Airlines, Inc.” and send to:

United Airlines, Inc. 233 S. Wacker 28th floor

Chicago, IL 60606

If you do not make the requested payment, United Airlines reserves its right to take further action, including submitting United’s claim to an outside collection agency, terminating your MileagePlus membership and/or refusing to transport you on future flights in accordance with Rule 21 of the Contract of Carriage. If you have questions regarding this letter, feel free to contact me via [redacted].

Sincerely, Corporate Security

United Airlines

Here they’re demanding payment of over $3000 and threatening to shut down the member’s frequent flyer account and ban then from the airline. They are also threatening to send this to collections. That would damage the member’s credit report. The higher your credit score the more a collection will hurt it.

I don’t see how this is a valid debt to send to collection. The passenger never agreed to pay the amount United is requesting. United is merely asserting a claim but hasn’t obtained a judgment for that claim. Indeed the passenger will have receipts from United showing payment in full for the itineraries purchased.

Two years ago I had readers tell me that United sent them letters detailing their hidden city tickets and demanding payment for the difference in fare between what they paid and the prevailing fare for the routes actually flown. In both cases they (1) employed the technique frequently (more than monthly) and (2) gave their United frequent flyer number to the airline each time.

Now they appear to be threatening collections — I’d love to hear about any case where United actually took that step — and specifically targeting users of a website that United was unable to shut down in the courts. The potential counterclaims could be interesting here.