Airlines are cracking down on a travel hack that can save customers money, while carrying ‘substantial’ risk for those who try it.
Earlier this month, a North Carolina teen who booked on a flight from Florida to New York learned the consequences of hidden-city booking, or “skiplagging,” when American Airlines agents caught him apparently planning to disembark during his layover in Charlotte.
The alleged scheme landed Logan Parsons, 17, with a three-year ban on the airline, his family told Insider.
And other flyers who attempt the tactic could face similar consequences, industry experts warn.
“It’s enough of a problem that the airlines have invested staff and technology resources to combat the use of hidden-city fares,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group.
In fact, between 2018 and 2022, major US carriers invested nearly $30 billion in information technology infrastructure, according to Airlines for America, a trade group for the largest US carriers.
Those investments are aimed, first and foremost, at improving airline operations and passenger-facing elements like customer support and booking channels.
But the smarter technology also aids airlines in identifying customers who repeatedly no-show on flights — a telltale sign of skiplaggers, who book a flight to one destination but disembark during the layover to skirt the higher price of a nonstop flight to that city.
“The airlines have been developing software programs and algorithms for several years to identify customers who may be using a hidden-city fare,” Harteveldt said.
Such technology, he explained, can help airlines catch even those passengers who try to remain conspicuous by leaving some personal information — like their frequent flyer number — off their reservation. (Ultimately, security rules require a correct name and date of birth.)
“They may flag your name in their reservation system,” Harteveldt said. “And they may — silently — monitor your future bookings.”
Skiplagging isn’t illegal, but it is banned by most major airlines. American’s policies, for one, prohibit booking a trip “without intending to fly all flights to gain lower fares.”
Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and numerous other US carriers have similar policies in place for skiplagging and similarly crafty booking methods.
Each carrier deferred to its written policies when The Post asked about its plans to combat the tactic.
In many ways, though, the schemes are actually a product of fluid pricing models now used by major airlines, which are driven heavily by demand-based algorithms.
For instance, a quick check of Google Flights shows why someone in Parsons’ shoes might be swayed to book such an itinerary in the first place.
Take the Wednesday leading into Thanksgiving in November: A trip on American from Gainesville to Charlotte would cost $315.
But a flight from Gainesville to New York with a layover in Charlotte comes to just $237 (someone skiplagging would skip the Charlotte-to-New York leg).
“The fact of the matter is that skiplagging only exists as a result of airline’s own pricing schemes,” said Dan Gellert, chief operating officer at Skiplagged.com, a third party site Parsons’ family acknowledged it had used to book flights for years.
Airlines aren’t taking these tactics lightly since they risk to lose — potentially — millions of dollars annually, Harteveldt said.
“It is, in a way, a form of airline shoplifting,” he added.
Passengers caught could forfeit frequent flyer miles, lose elite status, face demands to pay back the airline or, as Parsons found, be prohibited from flying with that carrier.
But even in the face of more sophisticated technology, catching hidden city flyers remains a challenge —particularly with passengers who only use the tactic occasionally.
“Passengers miss flights all the time,” said Scott Keyes, chief travel expert at Going.com, which flags more traditional airfare deals for passengers.
This can make it difficult to distinguish between offenders and customers who, say, overslept. It also helps explain why “thousands” book hidden-city tickets through Skiplagged.com each day without issue, according to the site’s COO.
“We generally hear of no issues from any of them,” Gellert told The Post.
Still, his company’s website does caution passengers against repeatedly using the tactic on the same airline and route.
“The people getting caught are those abusing the practice,” Keyes said.
He advises someone skiplagging, at most, once or twice a year.
“If you consistently don’t show up for flights, it gives the airlines impetus to look into your flying history,” Keyes said. “And once someone looks at your file, the jig is up.”
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