Monday, April 25, 2011

Continental Hidden Cities Policy

On the Easter weekend in 2011 I was traveling with my wife to Youngstown, Ohio via a flight that went from Orlando to Cleveland to Pittsburgh. My brother had purchased the tickets at the last minute for us because my grandfather's health was deteriorating and his wife was in the middle of battle against cancer. At the time of booking the flight, my brother was under the assumption that there was no policy preventing us from exiting our flight at Cleveland Airport, before the second leg of our trip. Because Youngstown is situated between Cleveland and Pittsburgh airports it made for sense for us to not board the second flight that day so that we could get home to our family earlier.

When we checked into the Orlando airport in the morning, we were alerted that the second leg of our flight (Cleveland to Pittsburgh) was overbooked. It asked us if we wanted to elect to be bumped to a later flight, and we said yes because we did not want to show up as taking up a seat that we did not plan on using. We got a paper with information on how we could offer to be bumped and what we would need to do.

Skip forward to a few hours later when we arrive in Cleveland. My brother was already at the airport (a 90 minute drive from Youngstown, Ohio) with one of his kids in the car waiting for us to exit and greet them. We made our way to the gate where our next leg of the flight would depart from 3 hours later to alert them that we would not be needing our seats and that they could use them for the overbooked passengers. At this point we were alerted by the gate attendant that we couldn't just leave our flight at this point. To exit the flight before completing the journey to Pittsburgh would result in them automatically cancelling our return flight and on top of that charging us a $300 dollar fee ($150 per passenger) for the change/cancellation to our original ticket.

We spent a couple minutes trying to figure out how the hell this made any sense. We paid for a flight from A -> B -> C, but we didn't want the C portion. Eventually we gave up reasoning with the gate attendant and made our way over the the Continental service desk nearby. Here we made the same argument and the representative that we spoke with told us that if we hadn't spoken with the gate attendant before her, she would have allowed us to leave the flight without penalty (charging us $150 per person + canceling our return flight). Because the gate attendant was the first to speak with us she was for whatever reason unable to accommodate us.

At this point, my wife was in tears over the stressful situation. We had told my brother and niece to head home until we figured things out. We had a few hours until our next flight, so I went to another customer service desk to see if they might be able to help us. Because the previous customer service representative left us saying "if you came to me first I could have let you go", I was thinking that talking with another person without mentioning the previous conversations would enhance my chance of getting out of there and allow me to get home to my family.

The third customer service desk was staffed by 2 agents. The one that we primarily dealt with was terrible to us. She came off as a complete witch and we felt like we were being accused of a crime for wanting to not complete our flight. The agent assisting her event went so far as to say that "it would be illegal for us to leave". Upon further research I discovered that it is in fact illegal for them to charge us extra for not getting on the plane according to a Cincinnati court ruling and Michigan class action suit.

The issue is that the airline doesn't allow users to get off between flights and abandon the second flight. They refer to this practice as "Hidden-City" booking. The reason they don't allow this is because it is frequently less expensive to purchase a flight that goes from point A to point C, and to get off at the layover (point B). I have no idea why airlines would have a pricing scheme that would work this way, but they don't like it when you take advantage of it.

The main agent that we dealt with escalated the issue and lacked any compassion for our situation. We asked her for a printed copy of the airline policy where it described what they called the "Hidden City" policy. They struggled to find a single printed copy and only allowed us to read their "Contract of Carriage" in front of them because they didn't maintain extra copies. I spent half an hour reading the 44 page policy and snapped a couple pictures on my phone when I came across relevant texts. Keep in mind that I never had to agree to this document, but they list on their site that "by purchasing a ticket or accepting transportation, the passenger agrees to be bound thereby."

Unimportant Details (feel free to skip ahead)

The first contract item that I am providing is from Rule 6, which defines "Hidden Cities Ticketing" (part J) s and outlines the results (part K) of what they could do if you are found using such methods.

J) Prohibited Practices:
  1. Fares apply for travel only between the points for which they are published. Tickets may not be purchased and used at fare(s) from an initial departure point on the Ticket which is before the Passenger’s actual point of origin of travel, or to a more distant point(s) than the Passenger’s actual destination being traveled even when the purchase and use of such Tickets would produce a lower fare. This practice is known as “Hidden Cities Ticketing” or “Point Beyond Ticketing” and is prohibited by CO.
  2. The purchase and use of round-trip Tickets for the purpose of one-way travel only, known as “Throwaway Ticketing” is prohibited by CO.
  3. The use of Flight Coupons from two or more different Tickets issued at round trip fares for the purpose of circumventing applicable tariff rules (such as advance purchase/minimum stay requirements) commonly referred to as “Back-to-Back Ticketing” is prohibited by CO.
K) CO’s Remedies for Violation(s) of Rules - Where a Ticket is purchased and used in violation of these rules or any fare rule (including Hidden Cities Ticketing, Point Beyond Ticketing, Throwaway Ticketing, or Back-to-Back Ticketing), CO has the right in its sole discretion to take all actions permitted by law, including but not limited to, the following:
  1. Invalidate the Ticket(s);
  2. Cancel any remaining portion of the Passenger’s itinerary;
  3. Confiscate any unused Flight Coupons;
  4. Refuse to board the Passenger and to carry the Passenger’s baggage, unless the difference between the fare paid and the fare for transportation used is collected prior to boarding;
  5. Assess the Passenger for the actual value of the Ticket which shall be the difference between the lowest fare applicable to the Passenger’s actual itinerary and the fare actually paid;
  6. Delete miles in the Passenger’s frequent flyer account (CO’s “OnePass” Program), revoke the Passenger’s Elite status, if any, in the OnePass Program, terminate the Passenger’s participation in the OnePass Program, or take any other action permitted by the OnePass Program Rules in CO’s “OnePass Member’s Guide;” and
  7. Take legal action with respect to the Passenger.

They don't list in the contract that cancelling the passenger's itinerary would result in a $150 fee for each passenger. Part J 1 and part K are related to the court cases where the courts found that the airlines are not justified in charging a customer for booking "Hidden City" flights.

The next part of the contract related to this issue is Rule 5 part C. This is what would happen if you choose not to continue the second leg of your flight.

Failure to Occupy Space - If a Passenger fails to occupy space which has been reserved for him/her on a flight of CO and CO fails to receive notice of the cancellation of the reservation before the departure, or if any carrier cancels the reservation of any Passenger, CO may cancel all reservations (whether or not confirmed) held by such Passenger on the flights of CO or any carrier for continuing or return space, provided CO or an authorized agent of CO originally reserved that space.
Once again, this part of the contract fails to mention that cancelling your flight would be subject to a $150 dollar fine for each passenger.

Sticking It Out

After realizing that the airline was not going to allow us to go home from Cleveland without cancelling our return flight and tacking on a $300 fee, we decided to stick it out and fly home on the Pittsburgh flight. We were told that they would not mark us as cancelled unless we didn't board the plane. It was about 4:30 PM at this point, and our plane would be boarding in about an hour. So we waited in the terminal near our gate until the 5:30 departure time. That's when I received a call from Orbitz customer care, telling me that the flight was to be delayed for 2 hours. No details were given over the loudspeaker near the gate, but I verified at the flight status monitor that our flight was now set to take off at 7:30 PM.

At this point I was fuming mad. My family had expected me home hours earlier, and I was missing out on the few precious moments that I would have with my dying grandfather. But I stuck around because I am a frugal person and don't want to have $600 added to my bill for cancelling the flight and booking a new flight home.

Then 7:30 came around. Finally an update from the gate: "The flight to Pittsburgh has been indefinitely delayed. It never took off from it's scheduled 6:00 AM flight from New Jersey. We will be providing buses to take passengers to Pittsburgh." I yelled out "NO SIR! No freaking way!". My wife and I walked to one of the customer service stations that we previously used, and asked if we could now leave the airport and arrange our own transportation. The clerk we dealt with this time around had a friendly demeanor and gladly excused us. I was concerned that the bus situation or us not taking it to Pittsburgh (a 2.2 hour drive) would mess with our return flight, but she told us that everything should work out. She even brought up that we could probably get our money back for the Cleveland to Pittsburgh portion of the flight. We asked her if we could be refunded for that right then, but she said that we would have to wait until we completed the Pittsburgh to Orlando portion of our trip before they could do that. She gave us a piece of paper with a phone number that we were to call to receive the discount.

At that point we were really fed up with Continental, mostly for not allowing us to leave without penalty when they knew that the aircraft was stuck in New Jersey for the past 12 hours due to engine troubles. We had to wait around the airport for over an hour for my brother and his daughter to once again make the trip to pick us up.

The Flight Home

We arrived in Pittsburgh a few days later ready to go home. When trying to do a self-serve checking we were alerted that we would need special assistance from a customer service representative. We handed our information over to her, along with the piece of paper that was given to us by the friendly Cleveland representative a few days earlier.

The representative told us that our flight home had been cancelled when we didn't board a flight from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. Furthermore, they had fined us $300 for cancelling the second leg of our flight. We tried explaining to her that there was no flight from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but it was instead a bus that we were told that we didn't need to get on because we had arranged our own transportation. With each interaction that we had with the representatives previously, there were notes left on our account. From what we were told in Pittsburgh, all of the notes left in Cleveland said was that we wanted to go home and that we were told that there would be a $300 fine if we did not board the plane.

The people in Pittsburgh wouldn't or couldn't acknowledge that our flight from Cleveland had been cancelled or that a bus had been provided. We even spoke to one guy further up on the totem pole and he said that we would have to take it up with Continental in Cleveland by calling the corporate support line.

Because our flight was cancelled we had to arrange our own transportation at the last minute. Fortunately, another airline offered a very fair priced non-stop flight that was departing only a little after our planned departure time. We actually found out later that our indirect flight was delayed and would have caused us to miss the connection, so who knows if we would have ever made it home if we stuck with Continental?

Lessons Learned

First and foremost: never book with Continental! Their customer service was rude, unsympathetic, and deceiving. There were points where I sincerely wanted to punch people in the face because of the amount of stress that they were adding to a fragile situation.

Second rule of travel: book direct flights. With non-stop flights you probably won't have to deal with this type of situation, or airline customer support.

Final lesson learned: don't rely on Hidden City fares. Airlines will try to tack on extra fees if they discover that you are getting off flights between stops. There are laws in the process of being added nation wide to prevent such ridiculous airline practices to be used, but until then it is a major gamble. I had no idea going into this situation that there was any rule against getting off early. I was so naive that I half-thought that the airlines would be grateful for me giving up my seat. While I have now heard numerous stories about successful "Hidden City" methods being used by my own family members, it is only useful for one way flights so that the airline doesn't cancel the return flight.

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