The last few trips on American Airlines, I haven’t been able to check in online. The most recent trips were simple and domestic, which eliminated any logical suspicion around the airline needing to confirm covid-19 testing or visa restrictions before allowing me to check in.
Based on a few extra factors, it’s lead me to believe that I might be flagged for hidden city ticketing, a term more commonly known these days as skiplagging. The short catch up is that it’s a risky, but often rewarding game where people try to save money on a flight, sometimes even getting a better cabin for less than coach.
How could American possibly flag me? Probably because I’ve done it. I don’t mind admitting it, in large part because American has no miles they can take away from me and it’s been years. It’s hardly been in a widly abusive way, and I didn’t create the rules for airline pricing, or the prices. I just buy tickets which serve my needs.
There’s no one at my coffee shop saying “you must finish every one of those croissants, or we’re going to charge you more”, so why American thinks they can make people fly every segment they buy is a topic of discussion.
Flagged For Hidden City Ticketing?
I recently had a simple flight from a New York airport to the Miami area. I wasn’t able to check in online, yet again, which I found odd. The last few times I wasn’t able to, I was traveling with my wife and infant, so I thought it could be something to do with the our little one. Flying solo before then, I just assumed erroneous issues.
But this time it was just me, a frequent flyer hoping to get my mobile boarding pass ahead of time, so I could zip through the airport and directly to the TSA PreCheck line without speaking to a soul. I love contactless flying.
Instead, as a Oneworld Emerald member with another airline, I went through Flagship checkin, where I presented my ID and made the usual small talk. I said I was surprised I wasn’t able to check in online, and it seemed to be happening more frequently. It was just a statement, perhaps angling for insight.
This is when I saw the nice check in person look at their colleague with a furrowed brow, point to the screen, and say “oh, that’s why”. I sensed a change in warmth, but didn’t prod further. American has been known to curb online check-in for suspected skiplaggers, since it gives agents an opportunity to look for anything “suspicious”.
The trip was a simple point to point without any intrigue or connections, so I received no further questioning and the team couldn’t have been any nicer. A boarding pass was issued, and I was on my way. I found it odd, and within minutes, my brain recalled “why”.
I mentally jogged back to being directly accused of skiplagging by an American Airlines lounge agent, back in 2019. At the time, I wasn’t even!
My Skiplagging Backstory
Again, I didn’t create airline pricing matrixes, leisure fares or any of the things which dictate a price. I just book tickets, utilizing the savvy I’ve picked up over the decades. An airline sets the price we pay, not us, sadly. Sometimes, their complex pricing systems work in their favor and other times, they can be seen as a liability.
I was once a frequent flyer between New York and Los Angeles, and American, for what I’m sure was a decent reason, used to price business class between Los Angeles and Puerto Rico — via New York — much cheaper than Los Angeles to New York alone.
I’d buy the one way business class tickets from LA to Puerto Rico and hop off in New York after enjoying a flat bed across the continent, at prices similar to coach. Since I’ve never used American Airlines AAdvantage as my primary loyalty program, it never raised any flags. Ultimately, I was a customer – just not a wildly profitable one.
Business travel eliminated most of my gamesmanship, and I took flights as booked for many years thereafter, often on incredibly expensive tickets paid for by clients. Read as: American profited greatly from me over the years, just maybe not as much as they could have.
But during a unique promotional trip in the USA, I had some very complex itineraries, which seem to play a part, even today. An American plane filling with smoke at the gate meant that I needed to change my multi-city trip plans on the fly, and during rebooking, an agent examining my ticket at the lounge outwardly accused me of skiplagging.
It was around the same time American apparently gave agents all the kool-aid to go after any people they even remotely suspected of circumventing their draconian ticket rules.
After the plane filled with smoke and was disembarked, I had to cancel a promotional event in one city, since I’d be delayed arriving until past midnight, missing the event. I had to be in the next city for a stop by 1PM the next day, and had an onward flight with American the next morning.
The AA agent refused to help and seemed to press some buttons, perhaps sending flares to a few channels. They refused to help change my ticket and said to take it up with central customer service. I did, and finally got in touch with someone able to help, who was happy to accommodate, but I (now) think the damage had been done.
After all those years, I think I finally got flagged, while flying on a legit ticket. I think the agent pressed the “I’ve got one(!)” button and it lives on with me to this day. The irony is not lost on me.
It’s the only logical way to explain a series of furrowed brows at check in, and the complete inability to check in online for my AA flights. Oh well. I’ve got zero American Airlines miles, I’ve got top tier elite status with other airlines and there are many other options.
If anything, not being able to check in online will just cause American to lose more money from me, since I’ll fly with a competitor to avoid the hassles of manual check in.
Hidden City Ticketing Risks
The only way American could ever prove that I engaged in skiplagging as a deliberate act would be the previous sentences in this piece. Anything – truly anything – from a change of heart, to a dodgy stomach or rescheduled meeting is a valid excuse for not getting on a flight.
People inadvertently do things which may look like skiplagging constantly, so it creates a very high bar for American, or any airline, to prove it as such. If you have miles, elite status perks or upgrade certificates though, getting flagged can put those at risk.
Naturally, it’s only when American feels they have lost money that they care. If you buy a more expensive flight via another city than the one you end up in, I really don’t think American blinks an eye. It’s certainly not flagged!
For example, if I buy a ticket from Lexington, Kentucky to London via JFK, for $1000, and get sick and can’t continue, I don’t think American will accuse me of hidden city ticketing. The Lexington flight to JFK would’ve probably been around $300. They’re thrilled that a seat opened on the London flight, and they got $1000 for nothing.
If, however, I buy a Los Angeles to Puerto Rico ticket just to go to New York, and it’s hundreds less than Los Angeles to New York, it’s all against policy. Ok, then.
Business travelers will often book a few dummy flights, just to have locked in options for changing plans. A multi leg sales trip might end early, no longer requiring the last few cities, so they ditch the rest. A person may suffer from food poisoning en route, and abandon the trip.
All these things happen. All are legit.
There are a variety of risks and rewards to skiplagging, but these are largely mitigated when you aren’t easy to track. Being a frequent American Airlines flyer, who skips a flight every time they fly with American, is going to make someone an easy target. That was never me.
I guess that’s why I find it kinda funny that after all those years of actually doing it, being an actual skiplagger, a 100% legitimate trip is likely the one that got me flagged – I assume I am – and why I can’t check in online anymore.