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The Courts Technology

United and Orbitz Sue 22-Year-Old Programmer For Compiling Public Info 349

linuxwrangler writes: Aktarer Zaman, a young computer scientist, started a "side project" called Skiplagged to compile a relatively well-known method of finding inexpensive airfares. "The idea is that you buy an airline ticket that has a layover at your actual destination. Say you want to fly from New York to San Francisco — you actually book a flight from New York to Lake Tahoe with a layover in San Francisco and get off there, without bothering to take the last leg of the flight." But organizing fully public information into a user-friendly form has gotten him sued by United and Orbitz. They accuse his not-for-profit site of "unfair competition" and of promoting "strictly prohibited" travel.
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United and Orbitz Sue 22-Year-Old Programmer For Compiling Public Info

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  • Luggage? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jbmartin6 ( 1232050 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:12AM (#48695219)
    I guess this works with carry-on only. Or is there some way to get checked luggage at the layover?
    • Re:Luggage? (Score:5, Informative)

      by PrimaryConsult ( 1546585 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:21AM (#48695261)

      Gate check your large bag, you'll get it back at the arriving gate.
      Besides, the cost of checking a bag undoes most of the savings to be had with this method anyway.

      I don't see this working with round trip tickets; many airlines cancel the rest of your itinerary with no refund if you no-show for a leg...

      • Often you can't gate check your large bags anymore. Depends on the airport & airline, but often they force you to measure at the counter & check it if it's too large.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Zmobie ( 2478450 )

          Not exactly. This is something the airlines attempt to stop, as it is a way to circumvent bag fees (they don't generally charge you for a gate check), but especially since many places are moving towards self-service check in or you can check in online and never see an agent this is rare. TSA should be the ones stopping it, but this is not their primary concern (or even secondary, tertiary... etc.). It doesn't incur any cost to the security side and because of the historically bad communications and coope

      • Re:Luggage? (Score:5, Informative)

        by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @10:10AM (#48695927)

        Gate check your large bag, you'll get it back at the arriving gate.

        This is incorrect - When you gate-check a bag it's "checked through to your final destination" - You pick it up on the baggage carousel.

        The exception is regional-jet and turboprop flights where you "leave your bag in the jetway." In these situations your bag is returned to the jetway.

        • After some Googling it appears the term "gate check" is used to refer to both practices, checking through to final destination from the gate as well as "leaving the bag in the jetway". Locally we've called the latter a "gate check" because that option is available on pretty much all planes leaving our smallish airport, and uses less words than "leaving the bag in the jetway", but it appears that is a technically incorrect usage.

      • Correct, you book multiple one way tickets. I do this all the time with certain carriers because you get bonuses for one way trips on miles
        • OT: one-way (Score:4, Interesting)

          by _anomaly_ ( 127254 ) <anomalyNO@SPAMgeekbits.com> on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @10:41AM (#48696151) Homepage
          Not really related to the skipping-a-leg-for-cheaper-airfare, but I booked one-ways for a trip to Jamaica (from the US).

          Not for bonus points or miles, but because it was cheaper and provided more convenient flight times. We booked with Delta on the way down and US Air on the way back. It takes a little more work because you're shopping for plane tickets twice, but I'd bet in most cases, it's worth it.

          • by xaxa ( 988988 )

            We booked with Delta on the way down and US Air on the way back. It takes a little more work because you're shopping for plane tickets twice, but I'd bet in most cases, it's worth it.

            I booked a flight to Greece and a separate return from Albania. That flight back from Albania was cancelled a few days before. I was refunded, but I had to book another flight (with a different airline) quite close to the date, so it cost me ~£150 more than the original flight.

            European regulations mean that if I'd booked it as a round trip (even if it's A to B, C to A) the airline would have to get me home at no extra expense, and compensate me if there's a significant delay.

    • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:25AM (#48695279) Journal

      TFA says it works only for carry-on, and one-way tickets since you'd need to board a return flight at the destination you booked.

      That really limits the utility for me; rarely do I fly somewhere and not want to get back home. If I was making a permanent move, I'd probably have luggage.

      • by omkhar ( 167195 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:31AM (#48695313)

        So book 2 one ways: JFK-LAX-???, LAX-JFK-???.

        You don't *have* to book that as a round trip, although if you book the return leg on the same airline you throw away ??? You might have your return leg cancelled.

        Fwiw frequent fliers have known this for years. Search the forums at flyertalk.com

        • So book 2 one ways: JFK-LAX-???, LAX-JFK-???.

          You don't *have* to book that as a round trip, although if you book the return leg on the same airline you throw away ??? You might have your return leg cancelled.

          Fwiw frequent fliers have known this for years. Search the forums at flyertalk.com

          That still won't work if you got off at Phoenix, you would need to somehow get to LAX for your return to JFK. Going JFK-LAX with a layover in Phoenix (or where ever) probably won't save you any money if the return flight is from the layover site. I regulary fly through Atlanta to get to Houston and my ticket is much cheaper than somebody going just from Atlanta to Houston.

          As for the law suit, I'm curious as to the grounds? After all, this was all pubicly available information he used.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Umm, you people seem really dense about this. Of course tickets designed to get you from JFK to LAX and back won't work with Phoenix. If you wanted to do it with JFK->Phoenix, then you need two sets of one way tickets: JFK->Phoenix->elsewhere and Phoenix->JFK->somewhere else. Some airports might be difficult to find connections at, but even a lot of small places get used for small, local connections through some prop plane company affiliated with a larger airline.

            And if you haven't check

      • I often book 2 one way trips instead of a round trip since the first airline often does not have a return flight at the time I want. I like to take the red eye flight back home so I will look for the one way trip back with the best (for me) departure time. Flying out at 11 PM gives me an effective extra day at my destination.
  • Why would this ever be cheaper?
    • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Mister Transistor ( 259842 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:20AM (#48695257) Journal

      I'm guessing that due to economies of scale, the more popular and longer routes are run more, so since there's more of them and more competition, they drive the prices down on them. The shorter in-between flights aren't as popular so they are more "Specialized" and cost more?

      • It must be an American thing. In Europe you pay per leg of the travel and you can fly one way between all major airports for 50$.

        • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

          Here in the USA it's all about screwing the traveller. We have some of the dumbest laws and the most corrupt companies that are fully supported by our government.

          • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Insightful)

            by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @10:13AM (#48695949)

            Here in the USA it's all about screwing the traveller.

            If this was true, why are the airlines constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy with razor-thin margins? They should be rolling in cash, and they're not. Why? Because air travel is hugely competitive and a great deal for the flying public.

            • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Insightful)

              by just_a_monkey ( 1004343 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @10:29AM (#48696063)

              If this was true, why are the airlines constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy with razor-thin margins?

              Maybe their core business is lobbying the government for handouts and subsidies, and they're actually really incompetent at running airlines?

              • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Insightful)

                by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @10:39AM (#48696127)

                they're actually really incompetent at running airlines?

                They're *all* incompetent? United? American? Virgin America? Delta? Southwest? JetBlue? Alaska? Spirit? Frontier? Hawaiian? Allegiant? Every single one of them, moving millions of people every week, they're all incompetent at running airlines?

                Sorry, I don't buy it.

                • Part of the problem is unions.
                  The other part, is bad management.
                  The last, in my opinion, is holywood style accounting.

                • Just because the airlines claim to be broke doesn't mean they are. Football teams in the USA also claim they lose money all the time.
    • Re:Cheaper (Score:4, Insightful)

      by itzly ( 3699663 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:21AM (#48695263)
      Because airlines make more profit this way (assuming that not too many people know how to exploit it).
    • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Informative)

      by The Phantom Mensch ( 52436 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:34AM (#48695329)

      Flights to resort locations are cheaper than major business destinations. Business travelers will pay more to fly since they're spending corporate money instead of their own while vacationers are stingy. Somehow this works even though that vacation resort requires a layover in a hub at a popular business destination.

      I had a friend fly in to visit me once who found that fairs to Atlantic City were hundreds less than Newark.

    • If an origin/destination pair has lots of competition the prices will be driven down to a level not much higher than the cost. If it has little to no competition the price will likely be set much higher.

      Since there are often multiple routes between major locations there is likely to be more competition on the multi-hop journeys between major locations than on journeys to/from the more minor locations on the way.

    • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Informative)

      by pla ( 258480 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:40AM (#48695369) Journal
      Why would this ever be cheaper?

      Because the price of (domestic) air travel has nothing to do with expenses or distance, and everything to do with marketing games.

      First, how many people want to go from NY to LA or vice-versa every day? Getting as big of a slice of that pie as possible matters more than getting a few extra bucks for the ticket. How many people want to go from NY or LA to Detroit, however? Probably not anywhere near as many; But, if you fly Delta, you will pay less to stop in Detroit for a connector than you will for a direct flight. So... Just don't catch the connector. Simple as that!

      You can verify this for yourself - Go to any of the major travel search sites and pick a random longish trip with one layover. Now compare the price of that longer trip against the cost of flying directly to the layover city - It will almost always cost significantly more.

      If the airlines don't want people to find ways to game the system, they can make the problem vanish overnight - Stop making the system itself a game. Turn air travel into a "utility" model, with a sane, predictable pricing structure (something like $X per mile plus $Y per individual flight, plus any applicable passenger class upcharges). Instead, the entire industry would rather piss around with games and "loyalty" programs and such.
      • by itzly ( 3699663 )

        they can make the problem vanish overnight - Stop making the system itself a game.

        That wouldn't work, unless they all do it at the same time.

        • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Insightful)

          by pla ( 258480 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:59AM (#48695457) Journal
          That wouldn't work, unless they all do it at the same time.

          If only we had some sort of, I dunno, Civil Aeronautics Board that could keep these insolvent assclowns in check.

          Yes, fares have technically dropped since deregulation - The GAO found they went down a whopping 9%. Meanwhile, the overall experience of flying has gone from "fun" to "buy two seats if you don't like having 10x the risk of developing a DVT, and enjoy your complimentary three peanuts".
          • And this guy is a hero, IMHO.

            The effing games played by the monopolies need every modern legal arrow possible to surmount their bought-off fortresses.

          • by itzly ( 3699663 )
            It's not guaranteed that the consumer will benefit from a predictable pricing structure. Without any flexibility to set the rates, fewer airlines will be able to play to game, and you'd end up with less competition in the end. Now, at least the average flyer on popular routes can benefit from low prices, subsidized by business travellers on shorter hops. And smart travellers can now play the game too.
          • Re:Cheaper (Score:4, Interesting)

            by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @10:17AM (#48695975) Journal

            That is how we got the F'ed up pricing structure in the first place, its legacy. There was a mortal fear among the pols that if certain parts of the country did not receive good airline service they would basically die.

            A 737 on up can go from point-to-point pretty much anywhere in the lower 48. The airlines make their money two ways charging a premium for non-stops on popular routes like JFK->LAXetc, and second selling higher price tickets for things like JFK->DTW while at the same time filling most of that bird with JFK->DTW->{Someplace more popular} passengers.

            I suspect if the airline industry had been left to develop without government intervention in the first place, routes to smaller destinations on the majors would never have been implemented.

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          Why wouldn't it work for a single carrier to do this, especially if they ended some of the fees and add-on charges the airlines used?

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

        They problem with the utility model is that some of us rely on others paying more so our fares can be lower. Our costs would go up, we wouldn't fly, pushing fares up even more...

      • You're right: the price of (domestic) air travel has nothing to do with expenses or distance. But that's because the cost has very little to do with variable expenses or distance.

        The costs of airplane travel are pretty much fixed. It costs basically the same thing whether there is 1 passenger or the plane is full. Given turnover times, there's surprisingly little difference between shorter and longer domestic flights.

    • Re:Cheaper (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Headw1nd ( 829599 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:51AM (#48695403)

      I'll take a crack at this, if someone is in the industry correct me.

      Imagine two airline hubs, A and C. Between them is a smaller regional airport B.

      Travel between the hubs (Let's use A to C for example) is cheap, relatively speaking, because of the constant demand. The airlines know their flights will always be full, so they can (and must) reduce their prices to a minimum. There is also demand for travel from A to B, and B to C, but it is not necessarily enough to fill a plane. Flying half empty planes is a huge expense, so in order to service this demand, the airline can allow a portion of its A to C traffic to route through B at a discounted rate. These travelers are flying essentially at cost for the airline. This is possible because the higher prices paid by the A to B and B to C travelers will make the profit. The problem comes in that if the A to B regional travelers try to hide in with the A to C crowd, the airline will have to raise the price of the B to C crowd even more if they want to continue flying the route. (They can't raise the A to C price as then nobody would accept the layover and would fly direct instead) Not to mention they are losing opportunities to transport people from B to C, if planes are leaving with seats occupied by phantom travelers.

      • Or perhaps the airport taxes are lower for transit than source and destination
          In cheap flights most of the price goes to the airports

      • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 )

        You have it backwards. The cheaper flight is A->C. The expensive flight is A->B. This is because there is MORE demand for A->B. It's kind of counter intuitive.

      • Travel between the hubs (Let's use A to C for example) is cheap, relatively speaking, because of the constant demand. The airlines know their flights will always be full, so they can (and must) reduce their prices to a minimum.

        This is counter-intuitive. If the flights are "always full" because of "constant demand", logic says the price can be raised.

        Just like a restaurant with a one-month wait for reservations, the prices can be raised until the wait is as little as one day, but as long as the restaurant is still full every minute they are open, then raising prices will do nothing but increase profit. Likewise, as long as the same number of passengers fly per day between the two cities, then the airline would make more profit b

    • Re:Cheaper (Score:5, Informative)

      by cptdondo ( 59460 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:57AM (#48695441) Journal

      Because air line ticket pricing makes no sense. Literally. I fly a lot (as in somewhere around 100K miles a year) and ticket pricing is pretty absurd. A one-way ticket can sometimes cost 3x what a round trip does to the same destination. Flying from my home airport (a small regional destination) can sometimes lower the price of the ticket, even though I fly one extra leg and 100 miles to a major airport.

      United is by far the worst of the price abusers; one reason I no longer fly United. The last time I needed to make a route change, they wanted to charge me $250 for the change, and $1200 for the "additional fare". I bought a one-way on American for $350. Of course, walking away from the second leg is "against ticket policy" so as a good drone I was supposed to cough up $1450 to United.

      In my experience no other airline gouges its customers as badly as United when it comes to these sorts of policies, so it does not surprise me that they are on this lawsuit. They are also on the bottom of nearly every customer satisfaction survey; maybe the two are related? Anyone at United listening? Hello?

    • by N1AK ( 864906 )
      To give an example. British Airways were doing some aggressive promotions to get Scandinavian business for US flights last summer, which they route through their hub at Heathrow. I was able to get flights from Oslo to LA and back from Ontario to Copenhagen for ~$310 economy return. The same flights starting in London would have cost considerably more because they weren't discounting UK business at that time.
    • Re:Cheaper (Score:4, Informative)

      by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @09:46AM (#48695741)

      Because, like any sane business, airlines price according to demand and not just costs.

  • It is not new. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:27AM (#48695289) Journal
    Way back in 1994, the airlines had the practice of charging less for round trip tickets with a saturday night stay over. They also charged less for less popular destinations connecting through hubs. I got an interview call from a company that sent me two round trip tickets, Dallas-Fort Worth to Youngstown PA via Pittsburgh PA and another from Pittsburgh PA to Tulsa Oklahoma via Dallas-Fort Worth. The manager told me over phone, not to check in any baggage, and discard one leg of onward journey and the entire return journey for each of the tickets. They both had Saturday night stay over for the portion that was never intended to be used. One ticket in USAir and another in American.

    It has always existed, and people and companies have always used it. All the airlines want to do is to make it more difficult to find it. If they really want to stop the practice, they could charge full fare for the popular segments and refund the money if the less popular options are actually exercised. They are not doing it that way. It is clear they want to accept it with a wink-and-a-nod to the savvy passengers and make the hurried and less informed passengers to pay a little more.

    • Some airline have an "efraud" concept where for example if you try to take leg out of order, you are refused check in and even refund. Among others. Note that they are fully in their right, as you accept term and conditions, and among those conditions is that you will respect the fare conditions.
    • No shit it's not new. No one says it was. This guy made the info more easily available using public info, and he's being sued over it. That's the story. And it's clearly the point of TFS. FFS, try reading.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    No, there is no such thing as "strictly prohibited" travel when it comes to airline tickets. They cannot compel you under threat of force to complete your travel under the contract of carriage. You have no such duty to the airline.

  • Everybody playing streisand bingo can now yell "BINGO".

    • Which very well might be what the Airlines are hoping for. If they can get loads of advertising and more passengers, with a modest "sale" they come out ahead.
  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:37AM (#48695351) Journal
    Nonetheless, the 22 year old founder cannot weather the legal storm that the duo of billion dollar corporations can wage out of petty cash.
  • One way round this issue, from the airlines point of view would be for them to charge the passenger for the actual flight taken - NY to SF in the case outlined - if both that flight would have been more expensive than the one booked and the passenger does not use the extra leg(s). I suspect most flights are booked with credit cards, so the airlines could do the same as hotels are just make an extra charge if the final legs are not used.

    • by cptdondo ( 59460 )

      As a frequent traveler, if an airline attempted to do this they would be sued, not just by me but by the millions of business people out there. I buy the ticket for a price. They can't come back and renegotiate the price after the fact.

      Especially since the prices change on a day-to-day basis, and bear little to no relationship to actual cost.

  • In Soviet USA (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mamba69 ( 3943681 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:44AM (#48695383)

    In Soviet USA you get sued for competing, rewarded for mono/duo-poly.

    • by delt0r ( 999393 )
      In many countries it is illegal to provide goods and services below cost. The reason is that this was often used by large corporations to create barriers of entry to smaller entities by undercutting production cost just to run them out of business. We still see this happening a lot in some industries.
  • Hadrly a new story (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jc42 ( 318812 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @08:52AM (#48695413) Homepage Journal

    There's a fair amount of precedent for this sort of idiocy. One of the funniest example, which got a bit of news coverage at the time, was back in the 1970s. The US Defense Department funded a study by a couple of academics, and paid them several hundred thousand dollars to study what could be learned from public sources about US military deployment. After the study's report was submitted, it took only about 2 days for it to be classified as a US government "secret".

    The press and the professional comedians had a good time mocking the US government for that one. But various people also pointed out that it wasn't the first time such idiocy had been enforced by law, in the US or in other countries. A long list of similar punishment for making publicly-available information public also appeared back then.

    Maybe we can start a thread of other similar recent attempts to suppress public information. Do you know a good one in whatever country you live in?

  • by MacTO ( 1161105 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @09:02AM (#48695475)

    I understand why the airlines price flights this way, and it benefits some consumers by reducing the cost of some flights. Yet the easily exploited flaw is a flaw of the business practice, not the consumer. If some consumers exploit it, there is no good reason to hold them accountable. It was the business' decision after all to use this practice, not the consumer's. If too many consumers exploit the practice, then the business should change the practice.

    Put in other terms, using the courts to enforce the practice places too much control of a product or service that the consumer paid for into the hands of the vendor. Consumer's wouldn't be very happy if business told them they couldn't resell a product at a profit just because they bought it when there was a good sale, or if they couldn't split a meal because they bought the larger dish instead of two smaller ones. Why should they be happy about being told that they must use all of the tickets for a flight?

    • by Jaime2 ( 824950 )

      Consumer's wouldn't be very happy if business told them they couldn't resell a product at a profit just because they bought it when there was a good sale, or if they couldn't split a meal because they bought the larger dish instead of two smaller ones.

      No, they aren't happy when video game publishers restrict resale of purchased games [ign.com] or when restaurants don't allow meal sharing [mashable.com]. This is just another example of the business model that the RIAA pioneered - make your business model into law and let the government enforce it.

  • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2014 @09:06AM (#48695495)

    It was a few years ago... but when we adopted my youngest son, I had to get him a ticket to get back to the states after we completed the adoption in Africa. Our tickets were $3600 each round trip. The price was insane, but that was at the hight of gas prices and we were landing in the middle of no-where... and the flight back was literally on Christmas day. The perfect storm of airline gouging. Then I went to buy by kids 1 way ticket... $4500!!! He was flying back with us, on the same plane and it was almost $1000 more for his kids ticket. So I started taking up a collection from the family... the plane fair was going to be about 1/3rd of the total adoption and we hadn't planned on it being that insane. Then a relative of mine said the obvious... buy the kid a round trip ticket to... he'd just not be on the plane on the way there. I called the airline and sure enough that was a legitimate plan. How stupid is that?

    Next time I'm taking a boat.

  • Everyone's missing a significant point here: the airlines severely penalize anyone who travels in this fashion. Yes, there are insanities about their pricing models that make it possible to actually save money this way. But the first time you do it, you will get a nastygram from the airline...and if you continue to do it, they will actually ban you. Furthermore, if you're doing this on the first half of your trip, you'll find that your return flights have all been canceled; even worse, the airline will NO

  • Because corporations working together, fixing pricing to rip off everyone and make extortionate profits is "fair"?
    Nope, but it seems to be common practice these days.

    • by Ken D ( 100098 )

      airlines are allowed to have "yield maximization" algorithms, but customers are not allowed to have "cost minimization" algorithms... that would be unfair.

  • The airlines are not charging based on costs (since a flight *through* SF clearly costs more than one *to* SF but the ticket price is lower)
    The airlines are not charging based on demand on the aircraft (since it's the same aircraft to SF whether you board another/stay on for a second leg or not).

    Instead the airlines are charging arbitrary prices based on "what they can get away with" popularity matrixes... and they are upset that their customers are able to do similar manipulations back? Sucks to be them: P

  • I can understand United doing legal crap like this.

    Orbitz, however, is known for creative flight scheduling. I'm surprised skipping the last leg of a flight isn't an advanced option of Orbitz search.

  • Law suits don't mean much if the plaintiff loses. I doubt that many judges or juries will award a fee for such a complaint.

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