The Internet's hero du jour is a young man in New York who invented an app that enables enterprising consumers to get sweet deals on air travel by bending the rules just a little bit
You know where this is going. The airline industry, as represented by United, is Goliath, and it wants to shut him down and deprive consumers of their sweet deals. He's David, and his supporters are rushing to his defense in social media.
At the center of this familiar narrative is a mobile app and website
that has given new life to that tired old bogeyman, the hidden city.
If you're very new to travel, hidden-city ticketing is the industry term for booking a ticket from A to B on an A-B-C itinerary that happens to be cheaper than the A-B itinerary, and then getting off the plane at B, which was the intended destination all along.
People have been gaming systems for as long as there have been systems, and air travelers have been booking throwaway segments like this for decades, sometimes with help from their agents.
For agents, this practice was a bit more prevalent, and a lot less risky, back in the days of paper tickets and airline computers that ran on vacuum tubes, but there really isn't anything new here except that an Internet entrepreneur has figured out a way to automate the search for hidden-city opportunities.
In fact, when you think about it, it's a bit of a surprise that it took this long for somebody to figure out how to do that.
In any event, the creator of Skiplagged, Aktarer Zaman, is now the target of a lawsuit in Illinois brought by United and Orbitz.
This lawsuit, filed in November, suggests to us that there's a bit more at stake here than the revival of a decades-old ticketing scam or another installment of the "airline greed" story.
Orbitz alleges in its part of the suit that Skiplagged was terminated as an Orbitz affiliate in September but continued to redirect hidden-city seekers to the Orbitz website using code that is designed to mimic an authorized partner link.
Orbitz claims that the site can seamlessly transfer a user from Skiplagged's search results to a booking page for that specific itinerary on Orbitz's site, which "creates the impression that Skiplagged and Orbitz are partners." The suit claims it uses the same technique to mimic links to airline sites.
If that's the case, United and Orbitz have every right to seek redress. It's one thing to show people where the hidden cities are, but it's quite another to hack a booking site that doesn't want to be part of the game.
As for the practice of hidden-city travel, we expect it will be around for as long as airlines continue some of their illogical marketing practices.
We don't abide the quaint notion that every mile of air travel should cost the same. Clearly, the 750 miles between New York and Chicago should be valued at a different rate than the same number of miles between, say, Louisville and Oklahoma City.
Still, a cursory review of some airline websites showed that one of our fine carriers is willing to take us from Washington to Orlando with a change of planes in Minneapolis for a mere $98.
No doubt, some travelers will book that itinerary to get a cheap seat to Orlando, and some will book it to get a cheap seat to Minneapolis, but we can't help wondering why this fine airline bothers to publish this connection at all.