Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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The Snidely Whiplash of the Skies Versus Flyers
January 8, 2015 -- United Airlines, the Snidely Whiplash of the skies, spent the holidays provoking an order of monks, getting a flier thrown into the clink for changing seats and suing a 22-year-old entrepreneur for exposing a decades-old loophole in the industry's chaotic fare structure.

But let's not waste another column on United. What else can you say after "Worst. Airline. Ever." Besides, if you want to understand United, look at this picture. A business traveler found the Delta Air Lines headphones sealed in a United bag at his seat last week when he boarded a United flight in London.

But United's lawsuit against Aktarer Zaman, a Brooklyn-based Bangladeshi immigrant who launched a fare-finding website called Skiplagged, deserves consideration. It's not only another airline-industry attempt to slap down a clever new way to search for long-buried discounts, but it is still another attempt to regulate how you use a product after you purchase it.

Airlines, you see, are not content just to sell you their product. They are fanatical in their desire to tell you how and when you can consume it. In the case of United's lawsuit against Zaman, they even insist you must consume all of the product after you've purchased it. In the airline worldview, the purchaser has no rights. Yours is not to reason why, airlines say. Your lot in life as a business traveler is to pay them and submit to every demand they make about how to use what you paid for.

Now I admit to my own bias here. I was fired more than 20 years ago from a major metropolitan daily for trying to explain to business travelers the loophole that Zaman's site exploits. So I'm in the kid's corner. I hope he beats United and Orbitz.com, the online travel agency that is also a plantiff in the suit. I hope when and if the case goes to trial, United is forced to explain to a judge why the airline industry's egregious approach to its customers is somehow legal and in any way logical.

In case you were off the grid over the holidays Zaman's case has already been written about with various degrees of bias everywhere from Forbes to Business Week allow me to explain what Skiplagged does. It looks for "hidden city" fares.

Stripped of the jargon, let's say you want to fly from Charlotte to Dallas. A one-way nonstop flight from Charlotte to Dallas/Fort Worth may cost $600. But a one-way connecting itinerary from Charlotte to Denver with a plane change in Dallas/Fort Worth may cost only $400. If you wanted to save $200, you'd book the Charlotte-DFW-Denver flight, get off the plane at the "hidden city" of Dallas and discard the ticket for the DFW-Denver flight.

Except for the computerized search and the Web access, Skiplagged isn't doing anything new. I covered the ploy about the time Zaman was born in a piece that was supposed to be my weekly business-travel column for the Los Angeles Times. But I was immediately fired for writing it and it never appeared. But I have a website now, too, so you can read my oh-so-dangerous take as originally written in 1993.

If all this seems like a tempest in a bottle, I got you covered. In 1997, I wrote about hidden city fares again. This time, I compared the practice to buying a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke because it was cheaper than a one-liter bottle and then only consuming half of it. I called the column Why We Hate the Airlines and Love Diet Coke. It has been widely reprinted, the Diet Coke metaphor is now a meme and the column was even presented as an example of exemplary feature writing in a college journalism textbook.

Why are airlines so vehemently opposed to hidden-city ticketing? They claim it costs them money. They claim it messes with the competitive balance. And they insist that we're only hurting ourselves in the long run if we book cheaper hidden-city fares, a claim so specious that it is only endorsed by the industry's most obsequious defenders and airline-ignorant business writers.

Why has Orbitz teamed with United in the lawsuit against Zaman and Skiplagged? That's where we get into the insidious nature of how airlines control things. Like any travel agency or travel-management firm, Orbitz is a legally designated agent for the airlines on which they sell tickets. No matter their advertising or marketing claims, when it comes to writing tickets, travel agents contractually work for airlines, not us.

United's contract with all agents, including Orbitz, expressly forbids them from writing or promoting hidden-city fares. If the agent doesn't follow the airlines' diktat, they may receive a "debit memo" (a bill for whatever fare difference the airline decides) or lose their authorization to write tickets.

In the case of Skiplagged, when visitors wanted to purchase a ticket, Zaman routed them to Orbitz and received a commission. To do that, he had to sign a boilerplate contract that bound him to follow the rules set down by Orbitz, which were essentially the rules that the airlines imposed on Orbitz.

In fact, the United-Orbitz lawsuit against Skipagged rests almost totally on contract terms. Although United asserts its right to tell fliers how and when they can consume (or not consume) the product they purchased, the gist of the lawsuit comes down to whether Zaman violated his contract with Orbitz and, by extension, if Orbitz would violate its agreements with airlines if didn't act against Skiplagged.

In olden days, airlines almost always controlled the legal game, too. That's because the 1978 law that deregulated them stipulates virtually all actions initiated by or against airlines be conducted in the federal courts. Federal lawsuits are an extremely expensive proposition and, in the past, even the threat of an airline suit was enough to intimidate and shut down an upstart such as Zaman.

But the airlines have lost some of the financial high ground in 2015. After United and Orbitz filed suit, Zaman, who may be young but is steeped in the ways of technology and social media, turned to the public and launched a crowdfunding campaign. As of Tuesday afternoon, he'd already raised nearly $60,000 from more than 2,700 contributors.

Most comments from Zaman's benefactors are typical David-versus-Goliath, airlines-suck-so-beat-them-down encouragement. But enough hit on the core issue Can a company tell you what to do with a product after you purchase it? that I wondered if even United, the Snidely Whiplash of the skies, could stomach the negative feedback.

A travel-industry insider, who has worked for travel-management firms, hotels and airlines, promptly set me straight.

"United won't mind looking bad on this one," he said. "This is fundamentally important. If United can't control how tickets are used, the entire fare structure will have to change."

So it's on. The Snidely Whiplash of the Skies versus a tech-savvy, crowdfunded 22-year-old upstart. Lay in a supply of Diet Coke--the Coca-Cola company doesn't care how many liters you buy or how you consume it and stay tuned.

This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.