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A Tale Of Hidden Cities

(May 8, 2001 -- Updated June 4, 2003)

On Monday (6/02/03), U.S. Supreme Court Justices allowed a class-action lawsuit over "hidden city ticketing" to proceed against Northwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and US Airways. The lawsuit contends the three airlines have monopolized certain markets by barring the ticketing practice of "hidden cities." The suit seeks as much as $4 billion in damages. So, what is "hidden city ticketing" and why do the airlines want to stop it?

"Hidden cities" are cities with airports located not too far from "fortress hubs" - airports where one airline controls more than 75% of the air traffic. Example fortress hubs include Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Air travelers who originate from these fortress hubs pay prices that are much higher than comparable fares in cities with more competition.

Basically, hidden-city tickets are itineraries with final destination cities to which the traveler has no intention of going. For example, many fliers whose closest airport is Charlotte, NC (a US Airways "fortress" hub), book fares out of Greensboro or Raleigh/Durham that connect through Charlotte on the return.

A Charlotte executive (who asked not to be named) saved almost $500 on a round-trip flight from Charlotte to Los Angeles using this type of hidden city ticket. How is that? He stated, “flying out of Charlotte to Los Angeles on US Airways costs $934. Flying out of Raleigh-Durham to Los Angeles via Charlotte on US Airways costs $385." So, he booked a one-way rental car for $60 and drove eighty miles to Raleigh-Durham. On his return, he simply got off in Charlotte, skipping the Charlotte to Raleigh-Durham segment. He says, “lots of people miss connections.”

He went on to admit that this form of travel is not always convenient because you need to have an exhaustive knowledge of flights operating out of your home airport, and driving a certain amount is required. Furthermore, you cannot check your luggage, so you have to limit yourself to only a carry-on. Finally, discretion is of the utmost importance. You cannot tell the airline or its agents that you have changed your travel plans or you will be required to pay the difference between the current fares for the two routes. Overall, though, according to the Charlotte executive, the savings far outweigh the inconvenience.

Missing connections is one thing, but (according to the airlines) hidden city ticketing is a violation of the rules of carriage contract. In a recent statement, a US Airways representative said, "we strongly discourage the use of these practices as they are in violation of our ticketing agreements." The spokesperson added, "we do our best to enforce our agreements."

Threats aside, it’s not a written law, that's why . Airlines have imposed fines and have threatened to take ticketing privileges away from travel agencies who have booked hidden city itineraries for clients, but many consumer experts say airlines rarely move against individuals. For many, it’s worth the risk. Consumers using this technique know that it's only in violation of airline policy (and that it's not illegal). If caught, many feel, the worst that will happen to them is they will have to pay full fare.

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