Are Hidden City Fares Legal?

Hidden City flights are seriously frowned upon by the airlines, but Hidden City Ticketing is perfectly legal.  Let’s explore the answer to this question by considering a couple of similar scenarios. Let’s suppose you and your 3 friends are biking around town. You’re thirsty, so you stop into a convenience store to buy some Pepsi. Bottles of Pepsi are selling individually for a dollar each, but the store is also selling 6-packs of the same-sized bottles for only three bucks. You buy the six-pack, each drink one, and throw the other two into the trash. You paid for 6, but only used 4. Is that legal? Of course it is.

What about buying a 5-gallon bucket of paint for 50 bucks when you only need 3 gallons that would have cost you 60 dollars at $20 each? As long as you’re not polluting a stream by pouring the other 2 gallons in it, that’s perfectly legal too.

Or you buy an airline ticket from Los Angeles to Austin, but get off the plane in Dallas and throw away the remainder of your ticket. Certainly you haven’t harmed anybody…in fact, you’ve opened up a seat on that flight from Dallas that the airline might be able to use to accommodate another passenger. In any case, you’ve saved the airline the expense of transferring your luggage to the next flight, and saved them the cost of fuel for flying a plane that is now 200 pounds lighter than they expected because you are not on the flight. Overall, you paid for a trip to Austin, but only used part of what you purchased. Like the Pepsi or the paint, that can’t possibly be illegal, can it?

The airlines claim that using a hidden city ticket to get a lower fare is against their “condition of carriage”, a ridiculously long contract of miniscule print full of legal boilerplate and outdated Geneva Convention baloney that, even though it is part of every airline ticket sold, is probably something you’ve never seen and certainly never signed. And as any lawyer will tell you, just because it’s in a contract doesn’t make it legal.

In fact, even American Airlines, on their website admits that “…usage of hidden city tickets is not illegal…”. (The complete statement follows the end of this article.) Also in their document is this outrageous excuse:

“Because we compete with other airlines with different route structures, we sometimes find it necessary to give a traveler who is traveling beyond a connecting point a better price than travelers who are just traveling to the connecting point. For example, a passenger who is traveling to Austin, Texas from Los Angeles can go on one airline via Phoenix for a price that is lower than the cost of traveling on American between Los Angeles and Dallas. If we want to offer the same price to Austin as the other airline, but the only way we can get travelers there is via Dallas, we find ourselves charging the Austin passengers less than the Dallas passengers.”

Let’s get serious, American. If you really wanted to compete in the Los Angeles to Austin market, you’d start offering a non-stop in this market instead of routing your customers through Dallas. Oh, wait a minute…it seems that since American wrote this, they HAVE started non-stop service between L.A. and Austin. Hmmmm…go figure!

And until recently, Southwest Airlines, the country’s biggest (by passenger boardings) and most rebellious airline actually stated specifically that they allow hidden city ticketing (as long as you didn’t expect them to only check your bags part-way). Recently they have backed off this positive stance just a bit, but they still don’t specifically dis-allow it or call it “illegal”. (Truth be told, due to Southwest’s aggressive pricing, hidden city deals on this airline are few and far between, and where they exist, result only in minor savings to the passenger.)

All in all, multiple legal experts have asserted that non-consumption of a product you purchase can never be (at least currently in America) deemed illegal. Further, consumers have the absolute right to make purchases that are in their best rational interest, and have no moral obligation to purchase services in such a way as to maximize the seller’s revenue, regardless of contract’s language.

In the past the airlines have attempted to close frequent flier accounts and confiscate mileage balances of frequent hidden-city “abusers”. While I suppose this might be within their rights (and why we advise in “The Rules” against trying to accumulate mileage with a hidden city trip), every published case where the passenger-victim has taken the time and expense to fight back in court has resulted in the rapid back-pedaling of the airline and the reinstatement of their frequent flier accounts before a judge or jury could hear the case and make a legal precedent that the airlines must surely fear. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to point out that OCCASIONAL use of hidden city ticket will not likely put you on the airlines’ radar, but that FREQUENT hidden city travel, especially on the same airline, will definitely get the airlines’ dander up and lead them to think of ways to thwart and/or punish you.

As a final note in this discussion, allow me to point out that the European Commission has specifically ruled that airlines MUST honor ANY part of an airline ticket, including checking passenger’s luggage to their DESIRED destination, and even going so far as to allow passengers to board and begin their actual travel at the mid-point of a ticketed itinerary. Since the ruling, fares have leveled out across Europe and hidden city bargains are difficult to find, because fares have become more “fair”…and the airlines haven’t suffered drastic losses due to this.

Simply follow “The Rules”, know your rights and be firmly polite, and your hidden city trip will be smooth and dramatically less expensive.

Here’s the complete text of American Airlines’ statement:

“Let me take the opportunity to clarify American Airlines position on hidden city or point beyond ticketing. Purchasing a ticket to a point beyond the actual destination and getting off the aircraft at the connecting point is unethical. It is tantamount to switching price tags to obtain a lower price on goods sold at department stores. Passengers who attempt to use hidden city tickets may be denied boarding, have the remainder of their ticket confiscated and may be assessed the difference between the fare paid and the lowest applicable fare.

Because we compete with other airlines with different route structures, we sometimes find it necessary to give a traveler who is traveling beyond a connecting point a better price than travelers who are just traveling to the connecting point. For example, a passenger who is traveling to Austin, Texas from Los Angeles can go on one airline via Phoenix for a price that is lower than the cost of traveling on American between Los Angeles and Dallas. If we want to offer the same price to Austin as the other airline, but the only way we can get travelers there is via Dallas, we find ourselves charging the Austin passengers less than the Dallas passengers.

Although the issuance and usage of hidden city tickets is not illegal in the sense that one could be fined or sent to jail by the government, it is unethical and a breach of a passengers contract with AA. Both tariff rule 100AA and American’s Condition of Carriage, which are incorporated into every ticket sold by American as part of our agreement to carry the passenger named on the ticket, bar hidden city ticketing. In addition, it violates the agencies’ contract to act as an agent for American Airlines.

If American Airlines continues to lose revenue as a result of hidden city transactions, the fares we charge must inevitably rise.”