3 Links I Love: Alitalia Rescue Plan #85,083, United Takes on Cheaters, Air India Hits Wall and Keeps Flying

This week’s featured link:

Alitalia relaunch to include Italian state ownership – USA Today
This is excellent news for all admirers of the Worst Airline Ever.  For anyone who thought Alitalia might go under or get merged into a bigger airline, fear not.  The Italian government is here to save the airline and make sure it… keeps losing money for years to come.  The new plan is to pour more state money into the airline and do some silly connection with the state rail company.  This isn’t shocking since nobody else is going to put money into that thing without massive reform, and massive reform just isn’t generally on the table.  As long as Alitalia keeps going, then I’m happy, and you should be too… unless you work for Air Italy and Qatar.

Two for the road:

United Airlines threatens Skiplagged clients with Collections – No Mas Coach!
If you’re going to have rules, you better enforce them.  It sounds like United is finally stepping up in the most egregious cases of hidden city ticketing.  Even though this makes it sound like there isn’t any follow-up, I spoke with United and was told that they are following up on these after they send the letters.  It won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m all for United doing this. (h/t View From the Wing)

Boeing 737 flies into brick wall — and just keeps going – The Washington Post
What in the hell?!  I mean, come on, Air India.

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53 Responses to 3 Links I Love: Alitalia Rescue Plan #85,083, United Takes on Cheaters, Air India Hits Wall and Keeps Flying

  1. HC says:

    Really cranky? We need some more details on why you feel united should be chasing down frugal customers?

    We are not taking anything from the airline, we are just buying 2 slices of pizza, only eating 1, and giving the 2nd slice back to the counter for no refund.

    • Nathan P says:

      I disagree. You are buying the salad and then eating a slice of pizza.

    • CF says:

      HC – United has rules, and if you break them, then you should have to deal with the consequences. Whether I agree or disagree with the rule, that’s the way it goes.

      That being said, I do agree with the rule. The entire fare structure is based upon someone flying the entire ticket. If people don’t respect that in large quantities, then it falls apart. That will mean much more expensive tickets for connecting travelers to protect the fare integrity on the nonstop routes. This is evolving as ULCCs have brought fares down on nonstops while connections have seen fares rise, so it will partly take care of itself. But it’s still the right way to handle this.

      • grichard says:

        This list of dire consequences isn’t really convincing. If skiplagging became widespread, it *can’t* just mean higher prices for the same travel. Demand would drop in compensation. A more likely consequence would be a redistribution of costs: more expensive connections and less expensive nonstops, ie something closer to pricing each segment individually.

        This *would* result, as you say, in the whole current fare structure breaking down. I’m not sure that I understand why per segment a la care pricing would be terrible, though.

        • Nick says:

          I’d say the biggest reason why the current O/D model makes sense for legacy carriers is that it makes targeted sales possible while still utilizing the hub and spoke model. Right now AA can run a sale ATL to AUS to try to get some share from DL, and the price drop is limited to just a city pair that AA wants to try to gain market share. With a segment model it would lower the price on AA from ATL to everywhere as long as you connect in DFW.

          Every price adjustment airlines make would have enormous ripple effects throughout their system. So if we think prices move to quickly now, I can’t even imagine it if a price adjustment AUS/DFW on AA changes the price on AUS to virtually everywhere in the AA system.

          And that’s before we get to many of the European airlines where virtually 100% of their flights touch 1 major hub.

          It makes more sense with a point to point carrier like B6. But I think it’s virtually impossible to get an a la cart segment price with any hub and spoke carrier.

      • Jason Steele says:

        I’m not sure if you truly appreciate how much Americans despise the airlines fare structures (among many other passenger unfriendly policies) and that no one would shed a tear if it all fell apart. You’ll have a hard time convincing anyone outside of a narrow group of airline industry employees and associated apologists that anyone is doing anything wrong by not taking a flight they paid for. God forbid we’d live in a world where two flights cost more than one and we aren’t price gouged if we dare buy a short nonstop flight on a monopoly route. I think anyone countersuing United will find very sympathetic jurors and United would quickly and quietly settle a la David Dao.

        • The airline is just mad they cant sell one seat for the second or third time. Of course the contract is a one way contract, it in no way consensual on the part of consumer. Its certainly correct that 95% of the consumers have no sympathy for airlines that consistently treat customers like dirt.

    • Jim says:

      HC that’s a bad analogy. A better analogy would be if a store is charging more for a small pizza than a large, and you take a small but only pay for a large.

      United has the right to set fare rules and enforce them. Just because they make no sense to you doesn’t mean you can break them without consequence.

  2. But if you were buying two slices of pizza and giving one back, health laws would force the seller to discard the pizza you give back. Same situation (sort of) with hidden city bookings. While they *might* be able to put a standby in that seat, without advance notice that seat isn’t likely to be resold.

    • HC says:

      And why is it the hidden city customers fault on whether or not that seat / pizza can be resold? They already paid for that 2nd piece in full. They just decided that they were full.

    • Alan says:

      That’s where your analogy breaks down. An abandoned slice of pizza has to be disposed of by someone. An abandoned airline seat can be resold at a premium to a walkup customer. The airline is not losing a thing.

  3. Mongo says:

    Brilliant move by United. I’m SURE this will improve their customer service image. Look out Southwest and Alaska! United is coming for you!

  4. Gary Leff says:

    #3 no issue with United closing a member’s frequent flyer account or banning a passenger from the airline when the person refuses to follow the carrier’s rules. Threatening to send a debt to collection, though, is another matter entirely United’s contract of carriage aside it is not at all clear that there is a valid debt where a customer agreed to pay a specific amount in advance and failed to do so.

    • Chris says:

      Agreed. I can understand closing their MileagePlus account but sending them a bill seems a little absurd. Granted, so does using hidden city tickets 38 (!) times.

      • CF says:

        Chris – And I think that’s the point. When I spoke with United, they said that they are only going after repeat offenders. So this isn’t the one-off who might have saved a few bucks. This is about people doing it over and over.

    • CF says:

      Gary – I have no idea if the debt collection thing should or would work. I would think United might have to sue people instead, but hard to know.

      • Ron says:

        Cranky, I think Gary’s point is not just whether debt collection would work, but whether there’s even a valid basis for a lawsuit; that is, it’s not at all clear whether skipping a segment results in a debt to the carrier.

        Here’s an analogy: Cheap washing machines are often identical to more expensive models, except that some features are disabled (this makes sense from a manufacturer’s perspective). Suppose I buy a cheap model and then hack the panel to enable the hidden features. I’ve probably voided the warranty, and may have run afoul of some other regulations. But does the act of hacking the panel create an indebtedness to the seller for the price difference? I doubt it.

        Another example: Suppose I buy an economy ticket, and then self-upgrade to first class. Of course the flight crew has the right to tell me to go back to my seat, and they have several tools in their disposal to enforce compliance. But what if they didn’t ask me to go back to my seat (perhaps they only noticed the issue at the end of the flight)? Does my self-upgrade result in a debt to the airline?

        Similarly with self-modification of an itinerary: The contract of carriage states that in such a case the itinerary will be canceled, and rebooking will be subject to the then prevailing fares. But what if the passenger chooses to not rebook? Has their action resulted in a debt to the airline? Again, it’s highly dubious.

        • CF says:

          Ron – I think there’s a very valid basis for a lawsuit. There are rules and the rules were broken . There are damages in that the actual routing flown is $x more expensive than what was purchased. That should go in court. But for a debt collector, that doesn’t make sense to me as much. I always think of a debt collector working like this: you agreed to pay a debt and then you didn’t pay it. But in this case, nobody agreed to pay the higher ticket amount.

          • Jim says:

            CF, when you buy a ticket you agree to the terms of the contract, which state that if you engage in this behavior, you will pay the higher ticket amount. So you have agreed to it, even if you don’t realize it.

  5. Nick says:

    Whether one likes the rules or not with Hidden City Ticketing, you’re breaking the rules intentionally. Justify it how you want, and no one is going to cry for an airline, but you are committing fraud. You’re entering into a contract that you have no intention of fulfilling.

    • J Walter says:

      Light treason.

    • Fake Bob Crandle says:

      How about making the airlines create a document that isn’t 1,000 pages long and requires a law degree. And what about a Flyer’s Agreement that we won’t be smashed like sardines and have to pee sideways in lavatories designed to fit a 6 year old (thank you American). Can we send them a warning letter to pay for my chiropractor’s bill? I hope United gets raked in the press for this. There were much better ways of handling this.

      • Chris says:

        No, you can choose not to fly or choose to fly another airline. You are getting exactly what you pay for. And when you support individuals violating the contract of carriage and circumventing the rules to save money via hidden city tickets, you are increasing costs for the airline and forcing them to install lavs where you have to pee sideways. The airline industry is the only industry that has not made an aggregate profit in it’s 100 years of existence. We all want to go back to a wonderful world 30 years ago where there was plenty of legroom, food and booze but no one wants to pay for it. You can have all those things you just requested but guess what – you need to buy a business class ticket it for it.

        • Jeff Marquis says:

          The fact that the airline industry has never been able to make an aggregate profit in over 100 years of existence is not an excuse for the way they are conducting business today. This isn’t about going back to the good old days, it’s about evolving the industry and ecosystem to work in a way that benefits the public good and doesn’t hurt carriers willing to make acceptable profits. If the companies involved can’t figure it out, then there needs to be a functioning regulator to build the efficiency in so that it works for carriers and the public. This might mean making airlines utilities like power companies. I’m sure that concept terrifies anybody who has grown up seeing private companies running everything, which began to happen in earnest in the 1980s. Don’t worry though, with the federal government and the neutered regulatory agencies we have today, we’ll be cowering to these airlines for years to come.

      • Nick says:

        The issue is that people want opposite things. People want 1960’s Pan Am Comfort and 2015 Spirit ticket prices. And given the crazy expansion of ULLC carriers across the planet, most people care about price #1. And for those who want the comfort and space, the lie-flat seats on a lot of international routes are more comfortable now even than in the Gold Age of Air Travel.

      • Jim says:

        Anyone who is sophisticated enough to figure out how to do hidden city ticketing is probably capable of reading the contract. I’m not buying the “it’s too complicated” excuse. The contract of carriage is online, and it’s written in fairly clear language that any native English speaker can understand.

        • Jeff Marquis says:

          Jim – I’m sure that if everyone had the time, patience and sophistication that you evidently possess, yes we’d all have a comprehensive understanding of the United contract of carriage.

          Ok, soapbox time…

          There is a higher level point being made here about general fairness and the fact that United (in this instance) is defending and protecting an overall business model that is inherently pathetic in regard to serving the public good. If one focuses strictly on the United contract and a given customer’s adherence to it, ignoring the insanity and unfair nature of the contract, then you of course can completely hammer that customer for “breaking the rules”. The point is that those rules (contracts) are arbitrary and self-serving to companies and an industry that doesn’t really care about customers at the end of the day. I’m just as hesitant (ok, afraid) of trying these types of stunts (skiplagging), and certainly would not have the nerve to do it 37 times — and risk my ability to travel by air. And that’s really the point. We’re being herded and managed by a consolidated almost monopolized industry, and made to fear for our very ability to travel comfortably and efficiently, unless we fall in line. I’m quietly grateful that there are people out there flinging rocks at Goliath, and yes they are not doing it out of altruism, more out of frustration or outright apathy, but they are raising issues and shining a light on an archaic and inherently corrupt system. Without a functioning federal government, or effective industry oversight (FAA, etc), this is as good as the revolution gets I guess.

    • Alan says:

      These ‘rules’ we’re talking about are not laws, and are not enforceable as such. Airline rules are self-serving and the “contract of carriage” is a one-way deal, breakable whenever they feel like it. If a customer finds a way to out-trick them on occasion, no court of law is going to enforce that nonexistent debt.

  6. Shane says:

    If done intentionally this is against the rules so United has a right. However, there is an asymmetric information play going on. When United has a late flight or cancellation that strands a passenger or causes a missed connection, they can claim weather or mechanical and there is nothing the passenger can do about it. There is no mechanism or transparency as to the ACTUAL cause of the problem. Is the mechanical problem something that unexpectedly happened, or was there a maintenance deficiency that caused the mechanical problem, for which United should be liable. I know the two concepts are not directly related, but if United wants to scrutinize passenger behavior and contracts of carriage, perhaps it is time to scrutinize the operations of airlines and hold them accountable for inaccuracies or deceptions or miscommunications (all “lies”) about the causes.

    BTW: I have skipjacked once, sort of unintentionally. I had a BA flight delayed that caused me to miss my LHR-IAD connection, so I re-booked LHR-ORD-IAD. Since I was going to fly to Chicago the day after landing in DC, I just got off of the plane at ORD and stayed to save the quick turnaround at home. Should BA come after me? (SHOULD they have, not COULD). FWIW, I had a DCA-MDW ticket on another airline that I ate because I didn’t use it.

    • Richard says:

      I suspect you will find their contract of carriage doesn’t actually promise to get you to your destination, or on time, only says that they intend to but don’t control if they actually can…

      And good luck running an airline that can be sued for breach of contract over delays..

      FWIW – I don’t think United should be able to collect more money off the Skipplagger, although they should be able to do what they like to that persons miles and status

  7. Dave says:

    Mixed emotions about the United hidden city collection trick. On one hand, we all know this dirty little secret of airline ticketing. So, we take liberties with your fare structure. Don’t like it? Don’t sturcture your fares this way!

    Conversely, United’s contract of carriage bans this — no matter how obscure the language is and how much legalese is used. Yeah, you need a law degree and 20 years of corporate law practice to understand it, but it’s there.

    What United really ought to do is put the language in simple English. It should say something like this:
    1) The passenger named on ticket agrees to fly between the cities outlined on the ticket.
    2) In the event of disruption, United may, at its discretion, re-route the passenger named on the ticket through any city it serves to reach the passenger’s destination. In its sole discretion and in conformance with applicable law and regulation, United may but is not obligated to re-route the passenger on other airlines or other forms of transportation.
    3) In the event the passenger seeks to fly another route or another flight, the passenger shall imediately contact United and seek alternative routing. The passenger will pay any difference in fare as well as any cancellation or modification fees.
    4) If the passenger completes part of a flight routing through a connecting city but does not complete the entire route, United, in its sole discretion, may charge the passenger’s form of payment for the fare that would have been charged for the route the passenger actually flew at a full coach rate. Exceptions would be death at a transit point, illness requring immediate medical attention or United’s willingness to modify your itinerary.

    Item 4 would solve this problem now.

    • CF says:

      Dave – United does say this in relatively plain-speak, but the problem is that there are so many required disclosures on any ticket that people aren’t reading them all, even though they should. You’ll see this on a United ticket “If flight segments are not flown in order, your reservation will be cancelled. Rebooking will be subject to the fare rules governing your ticket.” But good luck getting most people to read it.

      • Dave says:

        Thanks Brett. The difference between what’s there and what I’m proposing is not that the reservation is cancelled but that United has the right to go back to your credit card and charge the passenger as if he or she were flying to an intermediate point.

        They’ll read the language when the bill comes!

  8. Kilroy says:

    Regarding hidden city ticketing, I wonder if United might be able to get away with rerouting the worst offenders individually. For example, occasionally switching pax to nonstop flights (or to other itineraries with different connecting airports), such that the itinerary no longer touches the hidden city. It could even be done with the veneer of customer service (“We found a more efficient routing for your upcoming trip. In an effort to reduce your travel time, we’ve automatically rebooked you on an itinerary that gets you to City B 10 minutes earlier than before, but with a later departure time from City A, at no additional charge. We hope you enjoy the additional time this saves you, and as always, thanks for flying United.”)

    I’m not sure if United would be allowed to do this without allowing the pax to change/cancel their flights at no charge, and doing this could potentially consume some manpower. If, however, this kind of thing is allowed, and if United were to do it just enough (and just randomly enough) to cause some uncertainty among the most egregious/vocal abusers of hidden city ticketing, it might increase the perceived risk of attempting hidden city ticketing enough to reduce its occurrence.

    • Nick says:

      Now this would be quite funny. If there was a way to film this on hidden camera’s it might generate enough cash to cover the lost revenue due to hidden city ticketing.

      • Kilroy says:

        Make the hidden-city travelers total jerks in many other ways, add in some snarky customer service agents and gate agents, and I think you’ve got the basis for an episode of (fake) reality TV.

        Gate agent: “Thanks for responding to the page, Mr. Smith. Here’s your new boarding pass. We’ve rebooked you on the nonstop flight from O’Hare to Cleveland, which leaves in 40 minutes from gate B7, so you won’t have to spent a layover in LaGuardia.”
        Angry pax: “&$(@&! How could you do this? I really need to go to, I mean connect in, LaGuardia!”
        Gate agent: “Oh yeah? What were you looking forward to doing in LaGuardia during your layover?”
        Angry pax: “Ummm….”
        Gate agent: “My point exactly. No one in their right mind wants to connect in LaGuardia, especially not with a four hour layover. Joe Biden was being kind when he insulted LaGuardia; Everyone knows that airport is a third world hellhole. Enjoy your time in Cleveland, and don’t try to do hidden-city ticketing again.”

        • Donald_T says:

          “I was hoping to meet my long lost father’s son at the airport for coffee at LaGuardia before continuing my flight!”

    • Dale says:

      This would seem to be the best option. If Untied was to sic a debt collector on the passengers who used hidden city ticketing there could be legal issues and there is the risk of a public relations disaster.

    • Oliver says:

      And, they should do that an hour before the original departure time, so the skiplagger doesn’t have an option to research for alternatives. Do that a few times and watch the Flyertalk threads. “I wanted to screw United by skiplagging and they screwed me… what’s my recourse?”

      Soon the general response will be similar to when people who sold miles or upgrades show up to complain about their closed accounts.

    • james says:

      So long as I keep my original mileage credit :)

      I have a flight from Asia to the west coast this fall via Newark, with the intentional routing of topping off my status for next year. I would be happy if things got delayed and was able to be rebooked on the non-stop.

    • USBusinessTraveller says:

      That’s happened during IRROPS many times. “The flight to Chicago is badly delayed so we’ve booked you home via Denver”. Pax -“But but but …”

      And of course this isn’t just a UA issue.

  9. Douglas Swalen says:

    I have no problem with United banning someone from flying with them or cancelling their Mileage Plus account or taking away their miles, or even suing them for the violating the contract of carriage regarding hidden city ticketing. But debt collection, at least without a court victory to back it up, is another matter. I suspect if United tries that, someone is going to sue…and probably win.

  10. Matt D says:

    Sounds like this is a classic case of “even if you’re right, you’re still wrong”. Now, we live in a world where disclosures, facts, rules, and laws…..none of it matters. What matters is the court of public opinion. And if this ends up angering and offending enough people, the negative publicity will end up blowing up in Uniteds face, not the scofflaws.

    Choose your battles. Not all are worth starting.

    • Oliver says:

      Blow up in United’s face? Maybe. I don’t see a lot of outrage when United penalizes people (takes “their” miles) when they get caught trying to see miles or upgrades. And most people will continue to book the cheapest tickets no matter who is operating the flight.

  11. Oliver says:

    So much for the theory that pilots have a vested personal interest in safe operations. Jeez, mental note to never ever book Air India. If I recall correctly, that’s also the airline that has pilots taping newspaper over the cockpit windows to block out sun or something, right?

  12. Michael says:

    I flew from Bozeman to Denver on United. Fare for Bozeman-Denver was $404. I booked Bozeman-Colorado Springs for $196 and got off in Denver.

  13. MC says:

    The UA issue has been going on for years….I worked in reservations for several years and back in late ‘80s early ‘90’s people would use AUS as a breaking point….they would buy a AUS to LAX rt fare, fly to AUS to take the outbound flts but when returning they would get off in DFW….you could buy a cheap one way fare on Southwest to AUS turnaround the same day and fly to LAX and with no bags, on the return, get off at DFW….several AUS flights especially on fridays from DFW would be sold out but go out with empty seats because people stayed in DFW…..
    Its very hard to catch these people until after the trip….back then there weren’t tight controls on the FF programs like today to see things like this happen, with technology advances airlines can see what every passenger does and UA will try to break passengers of this habit….

  14. What other consumer product can you name whereby the consumer buys a product, uses only a portion of the product, declines to use the rest, and the vendor from which they bought it, wants more money because the consumer chose not to use the rest. Its an oxymoron on its face.

    • Tim Dunn says:

      actually, Tom, there are a NUMBER of similar provisions in contracts where you cannot terminate without paying for what you originally agreed to – whether you are “full” or not. Telecommunications services are full of such clauses and so do many lease contracts.

      As much as you and/or others argue against them, legacy airlines could not possibly serve as many markets as they do if they did not operate hub and spoke networks. Deregulation of the US airline industry eliminated rationality in pricing one market comparable to another – as existed in a regulated era. Airlines, like telecommunications companies, do disclose your obligations and can very much seek damages for those who choose to alter the product they use in order to avoid paying what would have been a higher original fare/price.

      United’s strategy of debt collection might backfire from a PR perspective just because airlines are viewed so poorly but the rest of what it has said it will do is not any different from what other airlines and other industries do on a regular basis.

  15. Ni7irs says:

    This is nonsense. United will never pursue these people. If it were me, I would demand that they produce all of the boarding records for the flights that were skipped. The labor involved in answering that discovery would exceed the pittance they are claiming. I’m going to be that they filled the seats with standby passengers in which case, I would counter-claim. The only remedy for breach of contract is money damages. Punitive damages are not allowed and it looks like that’s what United wants. It’s also fraud to claim you are out the money if you gave away the seats. I would tell your friend to file the letter under “I dare you to do it.”

    Oh and on the subject of the doctor who got dragged off in extremely dramatic fashion. That video occurred the third time he ran back onto the plane. It is against the law to reboard an aircraft once you leave it. I’ve also been told that he tried to punch or hit the flight attendant as well prior to the video and that’s when the police tried to subdue him on the jet bridge. United was losing money from the bad PR and paid him off when they should have thrown him in jail.

  16. Paul says:

    United is a bit of a strange bird. I am flying them this summer from SFO to TLV. They just rolled out the Premium Economy product, and it is priced strangely. On the flight I am booked on, it is actually priced higher than business class, which makes no sense at all (business class is priced around $1500 cheaper than Premium Economy. Who in their right mind would do that?). Anyway, carry on United!

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