The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Hidden Cities, Noticeable Savings
November 10, 1993 -- Most business executives have shaken off their nagging fear of inflation, but business travelers aren't nearly so lucky. For them, inflation remains a real and present danger.

While the rest of the national economy putters along with a negligible inflation rate, the airfares most frequently purchased by business flyers are skyrocketing.

According to the Airfare Management Unit of American Express, which tracks fare patterns for its credit-card and travel-agency clients, full coach airfares from Los Angeles were 31 percent higher last month than in October, 1992. Unrestricted coach fares were 43 percent higher from San Diego last month, Amex reported, and 28 percent higher from John Wayne/Orange County Airport.

The fare increases imposed on business travelers in Southern California wasn't a local aberration, either.

A nationwide composite of 215 business-travel markets tracked by Amex revealed that full coach fares increased an average of 34 percent last month. Of the 39 domestic cities covered by American Express, only Cleveland reported a decline in full coach fares during October. More typical were the fare increases in Chicago and Denver (each up 55 percent), San Francisco (up 46 percent) or San Jose (up 34 percent).

These figures explain why many business travelers try to reduce their fares by slipping through loopholes in the airlines' complex pricing structure. Desperate for pricing relief as their own corporate travel and entertainment budgets shrink, some savvy business travelers exploit a variety of time-honored ticketing tricks.

One such ticketing loophole is the "hidden city" fare. A textbook example of the price-cutting ploy currently involves Southern California business travelers.

Say a business traveler needs to fly from Los Angeles to Dayton, Ohio. An unrestricted, one-way ticket between LAX and Dayton on USAir Flight 614 cost $619 on Tuesday.

However, USAir Flight 614 also continues to Columbus, Ohio. And thanks to a raging fare war in Columbus, USAir charged just $339 on Tuesday for one-way, unrestricted ticket on Flight 614 if a traveler purchased a LAX-Dayton-Columbus itinerary.

Recognize the hidden-city gambit? A traveler could buy a ticket on USAir Flight 614 with Columbus as the listed destination, then get off the plane in Dayton--the hidden city that is the real destination--and pay $339 instead of $619.

The Columbus fare war also creates hidden-city deals for flights to Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis and many other cities.

Suppose a traveler needs to fly from Ontario to Chicago. The one-way, unrestricted fare on United Airlines Flight 726 to Chicago was $630 on Tuesday. But Flight 726 continues to Columbus and buying an Ontario-Chicago-Columbus ticket on Tuesday cost just $251.

A business traveler who booked Flight 726 could get off in Chicago, the hidden city, and pay just $251 compared to the listed Ontario-Chicago fare of $630.

Going to Houston from Ontario? A one-way, unrestricted coach ticket costs $525 on Continental Airlines Flight 1198. But Flight 1198 continues to Columbus. On Tuesday, Continental was charging $251 for a one-way, unrestricted ticket for a Ontario-Houston-Columbus itinerary.

By now you should recognize the drill. Book Flight 1198 to Columbus, then get off at Houston, the hidden city, and the fare is $251 instead of $525.

Need to get to Minneapolis? Northwest Airlines charges $588 for an unrestricted, one-way LAX-Minneapolis ticket. But book a connecting flight to Columbus via Minneapolis and Northwest charges $251 for an unrestricted, one-way ticket.

Of course, hidden-city fares are not a price-cutting panacea. For one thing, they are evanescent quirks in the pricing structure, difficult for the average business traveler to identify.

For another thing, they can be dangerous. All the major airlines insist hidden-city fares violate their ticketing rules. All say they will void the ticket of any traveler they catch using hidden-city fares.

And travelers can't check luggage while using a hidden-city ticket. After all, booking a flight to Columbus with the intention of getting off in Dayton, but asking to have a bag checked only as far as Dayton, will alert the airline to the hidden-city gambit.

But using hidden-city fares are not illegal under most circumstances, says Mark Pestronk, an attorney with Pestronk & Associates, a Washington law firm that specializes in travel law.

"If a traveler actively misrepresents his destination to the airline, then it is common-law fraud, an intentional misrepresentation of a material fact," Pestronk contends.

"But buyers have no duty of full disclosure," Pestronk adds, and the simple act of buying and using a ticket with a hidden-city destination violates no law.

A traveler buying a hidden-city ticket is on firm legal ground, says Pestronk, "if he doesn't make any representation to the airline of what his final destination may be."

This column is Copyright 1993 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2001-2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.