Southwest Airlines just took a severe step to stop customers being unfaithful

America's most beloved airline is suing to stop people being able to use the internet in the way people often use the internet. Is this wise?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

A freedom fighter?

Screenshot by ZDNet

We all want to be free.

So, I've often been told, does information.

That's why the internet was created.

Somehow, America's most beloved airline -- it's a relative concept -- doesn't seem to see things quite like this.

Southwest Airlines is fed up that there are business entities out there that scrutinize its fares and schedules and try to find ways for people to get better deals on the airline. Yes, even better than Southwest's (supposedly) cheapest possible deals.

I'm not suggesting these companies occupy some elevated moral peaks. It's just that this is the way the internet tends to work.

Hidden Gems?

Let's bathe in the factual mire.

Southwest is suing Skiplagged. This is a company that helps people find itineraries that involve a two-step flight, when the traveler merely wants to go to the first of those destinations. The two-step flight turns out to be cheaper than a single direct flight. So the traveler gets off at the first destination and leaves an empty seat.

Southwest claims this means its staff are unable to discern where the missing passenger is, perhaps leading to a delay of the flight and affecting its "on-time performance metrics." It also claims there are problems with baggage going to the wrong destination. I fear passengers who take advantage of these so-called hidden city fares rarely check baggage.

Some moral philosophers believe this to be poor behavior on the part of passengers. (Some airlines ban those who try it too many times.) Other moral experts might say that there's nothing illegal to see here. If the offer is out there, why not take advantage? The cheaper one-stop fares are often offered because a competitor has a direct flight to the final destination.

In its complaint against Skiplagged, Southwest insists it "prides itself on offering customer-friendly policies."

To protect this customer-friendliness, Southwest has previously been active in suing online travel agencies which dared to feature Southwest's fares and schedules without express permission.

Now, the airline is going after Skiplagged. In addition, it's also suing Czech-based online travel agency Kiwi.com. It claims Skiplagged is getting its Southwest fares and schedules from Kiwi rather than, say, peeking at the Southwest website itself.

In the formal words of Southwest's lawyers: "On information and belief, Kiwi distributes to Skiplagged the Southwest schedules and fares Kiwi scrapes from Southwest's website."

Many Customers Are Secret Shoppers.

I'm sure lawyers on both sides will enjoy their exchange of arguments.

Some might say that Skiplagged, for example, never agreed to Southwest's terms and conditions, so it shouldn't be an object of the airline's ire. Rather, it's just passing on information to interested customers. It's also not selling tickets. In any case, customers shop around. It's what they do. It's what the web makes far easier to do.

Southwest sniffs that Skiplagged "was inducing Southwest customers to violate the Southwest Terms & Conditions and/or Contract of Carriage."

Skiplagged has said it's already tried to reason with Southwest. Kiwi is a touch more bullish.

Its spokesperson told me: "Kiwi.com is not 'hacking' Southwest. Southwest openly admits that it makes all of its flight and fare data generally available to the public. The question in this case is whether a company like Southwest can publish information openly on the internet and then sue its online competitors from accessing that same data."

The casual bystander may consider this a valid point.

The casual startup founder may also admire these words from Kiwi's spokesperson: "We bring greater freedom of choice to consumers by finding routes and building unique itineraries that airlines cannot offer. This may upset the traditional way of doing things for some airlines that want to continue to control customer behavior, limit options and price comparisons of publicly available information. Ultimately, it should be up to consumers, not Southwest Airlines, to decide where to buy their airline tickets."

Where Is The Love?

Southwest is selective about which companies it gives access to its fares and schedules. Some global distribution systems, travel agencies and, gosh, corporate booking tools are given favor.

Oddly, Southwest previously told me: "Allowing a third-party access to our consumer fares and flights adds a new dimension that would erode our promise to our customers of offering friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. We prefer to build a relationship with the customer on their journey from booking to destination, and OTAs would change the experience our customers expect from us."

Some third-parties are clearly better than others.

I'm glad I'm not a lawyer, especially in these difficult areas.

I tend to believe, though, that the bigger the company, the bigger -- and more expensive -- its lawyers and those lawyers tend to win. Especially where the latest lawsuit has been filed -- Texas. Then again, Skiplagged previously prevailed in a lawsuit brought by United Airlines and travel site Orbitz.

I wonder what the courts will make of this latest Southwest lawsuit in our era of (supposed) free internet openness.

I also wonder what Southwest's customers will think of the airline's lawsuit. As a customer, I wonder whether it suggests the airline doesn't really want customers to know the cheapest way to fly the airline.

Which seems a touch off-brand for a low-cost carrier, and even unlovable.

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