Try To Occupy a Runway and You Will Likely Be Crushed

By now you have no doubt heard the story about United and Orbitz suing 22-yr-old Aktarer, the founder of Skiplagged.com. If not, here’s a very brief breakdown of the situation, and links to posts by other bloggers who cover it more thoroughly:

Skiplagged can be used to find cheap one-way tickets using a known “hidden-city” trick. The site has been up and running for about a year. United decided they didn’t like it and filed suit to shut it down about two months ago. Aktarer has set up a gofundme account to collect money for his legal defense and has raised over $50,000 at the time of this writing.

Other bloggers takes:

Even just from scanning the headlines you can tell that United is taking a PR beating on this one.

But will it matter in the end? Will United actually suffer, or will the attention last for the typical news cycle and then all be forgotten? And 10 years down the road, how many of us will ever remember a site called skiplagged ever existed?

In other words, will United get away with doing what Continental did to a FlyerTalker called chriseng in 2003?

Man, that’s a great tease, isn’t it? You pretty much can’t help but keep reading to find out what happened to chriseng in 2003. Now I’ve got you.

What did happen to chriseng? Well, it all started when he was bored on the night of April 5, 2003 and:

wrote up a little script to simplify searching for onepass award availability.

With some encouragement from other FlyerTalkers, he quickly built a website using that script, which allowed everyone and anyone to quickly and easily search Continental’s award availability for any routes they desired. And what did they find? Not only were there almost zero saver awards available – which actually wasn’t all that surprising to most, though it was still startling to see it revealed so clearly – but some members were gathering evidence to support a theory that Continental might actually be restricting award availability for Onepass members with high mileage balances.

Why would Continental do that, you might ask? Presumably because those members could afford to book tickets at the standard mileage redemption, or perhaps even purchase tickets if no saver awards were available.

Mind you, that was just a theory. And a theory for which not much evidence was ever acquired, as on April 11, 2003 Continental blocked the IP address of chriseng’s website – effectively shutting it down, and sending a message to chriseng and anyone who had used it that these types of award searches would not be tolerated.

But just in case that message wasn’t clear enough, Continental followed it up with a Cease and Desist letter to chriseng. The letter itself read:

April 11, 2003

 

Dear Mr. Eng,

 

I am writing on behalf of Continental Airlines, Inc. (“Continental”) regarding certain of your activities in which confidential and proprietary information of Continental is misused in a manner that causes Continental direct harm and violates Continental’s rights in such property. In particular, I am writing regarding your unauthorized capturing, storing and misusing of information from the Continental OnePass database. As an internet security consultant, you are undoubtedly aware of the numerous concerns associated with such unauthorized takings.

 

All OnePass account information is proprietary to Continental and such information is disclosed to our OnePass members in confidence. OnePass members are authorized to access such account information solely to obtain information regarding their own personal account and are expressly prohibited from delegating or granting any power of attorney or other authorization regarding any such access. These restrictions and certain other limitations are clearly and expressly set forth at our web site. As a result of these restrictions, any taking of such information by you is in violation of the OnePass membership agreement and an unauthorized access to the Continental systems. Such unauthorized access violates state and federal law. In addition, such access constitutes a trespass to chattels and an infringement of Continental’s copyright. Retransmission of the information is an additional violation of Continental’s copyright. There is a trend in recent Texas case law regarding this type of unauthorized access, most notably the Order Granting a Temporary Injunction in the case styled American Airlines, Inc. v. FareChase, Inc. (Cause No. 067-194022-02) issued March 8, 2003.

 

In addition to the violations of Continental’s property ownership rights, your process of scraping information from the Continental database creates a potential for degradation to Continental’s server performance which can affect the level of service that Continental is able to provide our own customers. The process also diverts internet traffic away from the Continental OnePass site, which causes a loss of potential advertising revenue and undermines our communication, access and ability to provide service to our most valuable customers.

 

Our technology department has currently blocked your access to the OnePass database. By this letter, I am hereby requesting written assurance from you to Continental that you will cease and desist from capturing, storing and otherwise misusing the proprietary information from the Continental site, regardless of whether Continental maintains blocks to such access. Please send such written assurance to my attention at the above address.

 

This letter is without prejudice to any and all other legal rights of Continental, all of which are expressly reserved.

 

If you have any questions regarding this matter, please direct them in writing to my attention.

 

Sincerely,
Sarah E. Hagy

Not needing the headache, chriseng shut the site down, and that was the end of that.

In 2010, United and Continental merged – and here we are today.

What’s my point? Hard to say really. I suppose my feeling is probably similar to those who occupied Wall Street a few years back, though likely somewhat less hopeful and much less radical.

While I hope that Aktarer will be able to prevail, my gut tells me he, and all travelers, will lose to the giant corporation with all of the money and power. The airlines simply cannot afford, and will not allow, the game to be exposed for what it is. My prediction: either skiplagged will be shut down entirely, or it will be forced to morph into something much less useful, and revealing, and will eventually die a quiet death.

And in 10 years very few will remember that it ever existed. And United – or whatever name it will be going by in 2025 – will still be going strong.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. I’m kind-of mixed on this, because I HATE to see big corporations bully the rest of us.

    But…i secretly have to admit it might be better for those of us who take the time to find these “hidden cities”. If we drop the principle of the matter, isn’t it better for the exposure of this loophole to disappear than for airlines to be forced to respond and ultimately move to close these loopholes?

    I’m not advocating or trying to change anybody’s mind, would love hearing the perspective of someone with a lot more experience in this hobby.

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