Airline Flap Over Hidden City Ploy

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

Not too long ago I needed to fly to Chicago. I soon discovered the painful truth--there were no cheap fares. In fact, the ticket to Chicago was more expensive than a ticket to New York.

Then a travel agent suggested an alternative: She would ticket me on an even cheaper discount ticket to New York on a flight that stopped in Chicago. When the flight landed in Chicago, all I had to do was get off the plane.

I tried it. It worked. And I soon discovered that I wasn’t alone.

I had used a “hidden city” ticket, a ticket written by savvy travel agents (or requested by travelers) that gets travelers over large fare humps and other price hurdles, using false city pairs to obtain substantially lower fares.

In an age of increasing restrictions on airline tickets involving advance purchase, minimum stays and stiff cancellation or refund penalties, the hidden city tickets are being written with greater frequency, especially for travelers who need to fly at the last minute.

Longstanding Practice

Hidden city ticket writing is a longstanding travel practice, and as airlines have aggressively promoted their hub cities, using a hidden city ticket has become easier.

For example, the regular coach fare between Los Angeles and Kansas City is $348 one way on Eastern Airlines. But using a hidden city ticket, with an official routing Los Angeles-Kansas City-New York (and simply getting off the plane in Kansas City), would cost $118.

Other fare routings offer similar savings. A New York-to-Charlotte, N.C., fare can be much cheaper if the ticket is written New York-to-Miami with a stop in Charlotte.

On even shorter routes, hidden city tickets are possible. Passengers flying between Houston and Dallas have been saving money with hidden city tickets written as Houston-Kansas City flights with a stop in Dallas.

International Flights

On international flights, hidden city ticketing can also save money. A ticket between Houston and Paris can often be more expensive than a ticket between Houston and Geneva with a stop in Paris.

Some travel agents have been saving their clients substantial sums by writing the Houston-Geneva tickets and suggesting that their clients leave the plane--as originally intended--in Paris.

There are a few catches to the hidden city tickets. First, it’s a good idea--for obvious reasons--to fly with only carry-on baggage. (If you check bags for your flight they will be tagged for the last destination listed on the ticket.)

Second, the extra unused coupons you hold in your hand for the unflown legs of your flight are more or less worthless. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this.

Ticket Sharing

Consider a person who needs to fly to Denver. He buys a cheap round-trip Los Angeles-New York ticket with a stop in Denver. He, in turn, has a friend who needs to go from Denver to New York. When the first traveler lands in Denver he hands the ticket to his friend who continues to New York.

When the friend returns from New York, he reverses the process. He even gets full frequent flyer mileage credit for the entire routing.

Third, if you don’t show up for the first leg of a flight, there’s a good chance that the airline’s computer will cancel all other reservations for flight segments down the line.

Officially, airlines claim that the practice is illegal because it violates tariff agreements (and reduces their income).

But more often than not, the airlines have apparently looked the other way in trying to stop the hidden city tickets.

Airlines Match Fares

Ironically, one of the reasons so many hidden city tickets are being sold is competition. For example, if Continental Airlines promotes a cheap Houston-Los Angeles fare, other airlines such as American will probably match it.

But American doesn’t fly between Houston and Los Angeles. As a result, American will ticket passengers Houston-Dallas-Los Angeles, charging Continental’s fare, which in some cases is cheaper than the straight Houston-Dallas fare charged by American.

American Airlines is not thrilled with this development, and other ticket deals like it. “It deprives us of revenue and we consider it a breach of a business contract we have with either the travel agent and/or the passenger,” says Steve McGregor, a spokesman for American Airlines.

“In some cases,” he says, “we have no idea that the passengers are doing this. But when we discover a pattern, or in the case of the Fort Worth agency, where they even promote it, we’ll go after it.”

Court Order Obtained

Recently, American decided to go after travel agents who had been promoting the hidden city tickets. The airline has obtained a court order and a preliminary injunction against two travel agencies in Fort Worth.

Travel Management International and Wedgwood Travel were told to stop the hidden city practice until a trial, scheduled later this year, is held.

“Sure, I advertised and promoted it,” says Jerry Weiner, owner of both agencies. He called it “point beyond” ticketing. “It’s a very common practice,” he says. “It’s even printed in our ticketing handbooks, and the airlines even tell us how to do it.

“Travelers want to go for the lowest fare,” says Weiner. “I’m in business to get them that fare. Is it right that a passenger going from Los Angeles to Dallas pays more for his ticket than a passenger officially ticketed Los Angeles to Houston with a stop in Dallas? Given that choice, wouldn’t you simply buy the ticket to Houston?”

A lot of people did. In preparing its case against Weiner, American audited two months’ worth of his agencies’ tickets, and sent Weiner debit memos totaling $96,000 that the airline claimed it lost because of hidden city tickets.

Revenue Dispute

“Their contention is that I cost them revenue,” says Weiner. “My contention is that I put people on airplanes who otherwise would not have flown because the fares would have been excessive. A Charlotte-to-Denver flight with a stop in Dallas is much cheaper than a Charlotte-to-Dallas flight. The public needs to know this. I’m enjoying the challenge, and I’m looking forward to the trial.”

Until the trial results in a verdict, the practice of writing hidden city tickets will most likely continue (with the exception of Weiner’s agencies).

But keep in mind that not every travel agent enthusiastically embraces the hidden city idea. If it reduces an airline’s revenue, it also reduces an agent’s commission.

“Still,” says Weiner, “when the difference in fares can be in the hundreds of dollars, travel agents are being irresponsible to their clients if they don’t write the hidden city tickets.”