Hoping to dissuade passengers from engaging in the practice of hidden city ticketing, Lufthansa is suing a passenger for skipping a flight from Frankfurt to Oslo. I’m betting the lawsuit is going to backfire.
With stiff competition from Norwegian Airlines, some of the best deals in Europe to destinations around the world originate in Oslo. One German man noticed that he could save over $2,000 by booking Oslo – Frankfurt – Seattle – Frankfurt – Oslo instead of Berlin – Frankfurt – Seattle – Frankfurt – Oslo. So he booked it, paying ~$716 instead of ~$3000. On the way back, he simply skipped the Frankfurt to Oslo flight and bought a flight home to Berlin. This practice is commonly known as hidden-city ticketing or throw-away ticketing.
Lufthansa, arguing that this action contravened the mutually-agreed upon contract of carriage, is suing the passenger. Lufthansa lost the first round in court because it failed to clearly clarify how it arrived at its final demand of €2,112, which includes the difference in fare plus interest. But now Lufthansa has appealed.
I’m not going to make an extended argument for or against “hidden city ticketing” here. Kyle did a nice job of arguing both sides of the issue in the context of a similar controversy on United Airlines last October.
I will repeat my bottom line, though–
The whole concept of charging more for A + B than A alone strikes most as counterintuitive, including me. I certainly understand why United charges a premium for A alone if it is a nonstop flight. But if someone is clever enough to save some money by tacking on B and willing to take the attendant risks of doing so, more power to them.
This remains my position. I discuss the “attendant risks” in more detail below.
Lufthansa Will Lose, Even If It Wins
I do not think Lufthansa will prevail. Instead, I think a court will rule that hidden city language in the contract of carriage represents an unenforceable contract of adhesion. The court will argue that passengers have no reasonable or even logical expectation that they will have to pay so steep a penalty for not taking all of their flights.
But even if Lufthansa wins, it will lose. Think about the all the publicity this lawsuit is bringing to the issue of hidden city and throw-away ticketing. Widespread news about hidden city ticketing this week may indeed scare people away from engaging in this practice. But I suspect it will embolden far more to do it. Many have now been introduced to the concept for the first time. And let’s face it, it is kind of tough to pay 300EUR for London to Frankfurt when you can pay 100EUR for the same London to Frankfurt flight with a connection to Milan. It’s worth the risk for most people.
Lufthansa, which charges exorbitant change fees and is one of the most inflexible airlines when it comes to schedule changes, will not find sympathy from the public for this lawsuit. Quite the contrary, this lawsuit will be a PR black eye for the German airline. Across the industry, hidden city ticketing has come to represent a small way passengers can “level the playing field” against behemoth airlines. This practice will only proliferate.
How Lufthansa Can Crack Down On Hidden City Ticketing
Lufthansa has three primary ways to discourage hidden city ticketing. First, it can refuse to “short-check” bags to an intermediate stop, making it impossible for any passenger to travel with a checked bag when skipping a flight. Second, Lufthansa already cancels the remainder of segments when one is missed. So if you book Dublin – Frankfurt – New York – Frankfurt- Dublin and skip the Dublin to Frankfurt flight, the rest of your itinerary is instantly cancelled. That means only the last segment(s) can realistically be skipped, diminishing the value of many strategic booking opportunities.
Lastly, and most importantly for any passenger of long-term value, Lufthansa can cancel the Miles & More account or ban the passenger from flying Lufthansa. I tend to think that would be a wake-up call to many. It’s rather tough to live in Berlin and never travel on Lufthansa…
So Lufthansa already has tools at its disposal to combat the practice of hidden-city ticketing. To sue a passenger strikes me as highly counterproductive and frankly petty.
The hub and spoke systems of network airlines makes hidden city ticketing worthy of concern. But airlines should just understand that it part of the cost of doing business. Making threats or filing lawsuits against passengers will backfire.
Lufthansa may win the battle, but it will lose the war.
What do you think about Lufthansa’s lawsuit?
image: Tobias Nordhausen / Flickr (CC 2.o)