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How, specifically, do airlines distinguish between people who miss a return international flight for genuine reasons, and people who skip specifically the return leg of a ticket to get a cheap one-way flight on an international flight?

What is the actual legal and/or contract basis of this? Does anyone have any factual experience of it?

For example: when this happens (you genuinely miss or can't take the return leg) does (for example) someone from the airline try to telephone you? Letter, email? Are there any factually known procedures or happenings?

(As opposed to the oft-repeated general idea that the airlines will "go after you" or "try to charge you" in such a case - which is possibly just a myth; hence this question.)

The example fare I had in mind was Europe to the US. In broad general terms this is about 700 euros for round trip but almost always about 1700 for a one-way, so it's a big difference - thousands and thousands of euros for a large family, say - you can imagine the airlines being pissed. {BTW if you're looking for such a fare, a rare exception presently (2015) is XL which offers cheap one-way flights.}

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    Many airlines will allow you to reschedule the tickets for some (often non-trivial) fee in cases of medical emergency. I think calling them to inform was the correct course of action. – Matthew Herbst May 9 '15 at 8:58
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    This question is incredibly long-winded, with all kinds of irrelevant detail included in it and a style that seems to be more rant than question. Please edit it to trim it down: it could easily be a third the length. Probably more like a tenth, since all you're actually asking is, "How do airlines distinguish between people who miss flights for genuine reasons and people who skip the return leg of a ticket to get a cheap one-way flight?" – David Richerby May 9 '15 at 12:29
  • "It's usually said that if you 'skip out on' a return flight (so: you were just sneakily achieving an incredibly cheap one-way ticket), an airline will hunt you down for the money, try to charge your card, etc etc." [Citation needed] – David Richerby May 9 '15 at 12:29
  • HI David! If you feel like editing it for stylistic reasons .. go for it. – Fattie May 9 '15 at 17:57
  • @David I also wondered about that; I still don't have anything to suggest it's common, but it is in a few contracts of carriage I looked at that they have the option to charge the difference. – cpast May 9 '15 at 23:58
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+100

For the most part, they do not, it is a waste of their resources. Onward travel on the same ticket will likely be voided, although in practise this depends on the IT competence of the airline in question.

The airline may cancel your frequent flier account if you do it very frequently. In the United States, some airlines threaten to recover the fare difference from you, but I am not aware of any case in which this was upheld as a lawful remedy. Certainly within the European Union it would not be an enforceable contract term.

The airlines' sole remedy is to cancel your frequent flier account, and any points there accruing.

Therefore, there is not much more the airline can do about it. For example, British Airways states in their general conditions they do not even claim to have any recourse against you beyond cancelling any further travel on the same ticket. See section 3c, in particular 3c2:

"Your ticket is no longer valid if you do not use all the coupons in the sequence provided in the ticket. Where you change your travel without our agreement and the price for the resulting transportation you intend to undertake is greater than the price originally paid, you will be requested to pay the difference in price. Failure to pay the price applicable to your revised transportation will result in refusal of carriage."

  • Would you care to quote the relevant part of the BA T&C's? – JoErNanO May 11 '15 at 12:52
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    britishairways.com/en-gb/information/legal/british-airways/… See 3c. In particular 3c2: "Your ticket is no longer valid if you do not use all the coupons in the sequence provided in the ticket. Where you change your travel without our agreement and the price for the resulting transportation you intend to undertake is greater than the price originally paid, you will be requested to pay the difference in price. Failure to pay the price applicable to your revised transportation will result in refusal of carriage." – Calchas May 11 '15 at 12:58
  • Add this to the answer, using the quoting environment > foobar. ;) – JoErNanO May 11 '15 at 13:01
  • i agree, surely put the excellent factual information from the comment, in the answer - for posterity :) – Fattie May 13 '15 at 1:26
  • "refusal of carriage"? Doesn't it sound like a lifetime airline ban? – Ark-kun Sep 2 '15 at 1:20
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Based on your premise that the family does call in the fact that they need to cancel their booking due to a medical emergency then they have duly notified the airline and their missing the return flight would not mark them as "skipper-outers".

Most of the major airlines do not sell "non-changeable" international tickets. The cheapest fares are "non-refundable", but almost always changeable for a fee. Some of the cheapest LCCs do sell "non-refundable & non-changeable", but they aren't part of your scenario. So in your scenario the family will likely have been offered the opportunity to reschedule and hopefully their insurance will cover the change fees due to the medical emergency.

If they skipped the flight without notifying the airline, then the gate agents would flag their booking as a no show. And as they are a family of five from outside the country, then it maybe that someone else in the corporate office will review the booking and determine if any follow ups are warranted.

The airlines do pursue "skipper-outers", but not all. Mostly it is a issue of cost to be recovered vs legal investment to do so, serial "skipper-outer" vs one time infrequent flyer.

  • BA's I-class fares for travel originating within the United Kingdom are wholly non-changeable and non-refundable – Calchas May 11 '15 at 12:22
  • As I said "most", there is hardly a rule that doesn't have exceptions somewhere, though I am amazed how many people cite BA as their example of exceptions. – user13044 May 11 '15 at 14:24
  • Indeed, just thought you'd like to know! :p – Calchas May 11 '15 at 14:37
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To answer the concrete question, how airlines determine who is being malicious and who is actually missing their flight?

By frequency.

The airlines have IT systems that allow them to statistically track all fliers. They know what happens in 99% of the cases and how frequent cancellations or non-attendance for the second leg are. When someone maliciously, once in a lifetime, drops the second leg, they won't know. It can be a coincidence. However, by the nature of the beast, people who are doing this are not once-in-a-lifetime fliers. They travel rather frequently and will most likely do this several times. On top of that, the people who do this only once are not as much as concern for the airlines, so they focus on people who do that frequently.

In their data, they can identify pretty quickly who is doing this regularly and then are able to start asking questions. But as stated in other answers, the possibilities for the airlines to do anything about it are very limited. Their best chance is to make it harder for you to find out the price difference and to not make it that clear to you that there will be no "real" consequences.

This is shown quite clearly in the fact that United Airlines tried to Sue skiplagged.com (which helps you booking those flights) end of 2014 instead of putting the pressure on customers using the service - because they cannot.

  • your final paragraph is great factual info, thanks! – Fattie May 13 '15 at 8:22

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