Hacking Airline Lounges for Free Meals

I think this is a great hack:

A man bought a first-class ticket and used it to have free meals and drinks at the airport's VIP lounge almost every day for nearly a year, Kwong Wah Yit Poh reported.

The itinerary for the ticket was found to have been changed more than 300 times within a year, and the owner of the ticket used it to enjoy the facilities at the airport's VIP lounge in Xi'an in Shaanxi, China.

[...]

When the ticket's validity was almost up, the passenger cancelled it for a refund.

It's such a weird occurrence that I'm not even sure it's worth bothering to defend against.

EDITED TO ADD (2/4): Hacker News thread.

Posted on February 4, 2014 at 6:45 AM • 39 Comments

Comments

Peter GalbavyFebruary 4, 2014 6:58 AM

It's such a weird occurrence that I'm not even sure it's worth bothering to defend against.

It is now, now that it's been publicised. If someone has the capital to do this, they can try themselves.

Bruce SchneierFebruary 4, 2014 7:29 AM

"It is now, now that it's been publicised. If someone has the capital to do this, they can try themselves."

It's not the capital. It's the free time -- and lack of any other life -- to go to the airport every day.

HaukeFebruary 4, 2014 7:39 AM

It's the free time -- and lack of any other life -- to go to the airport every day.

Or just a clever calculation if you live or work close to it.

kingsnakeFebruary 4, 2014 7:41 AM

Lounges are inside security. Not sure I want to trade a probing for a stale mini-bagel ...

NobodySpecialFebruary 4, 2014 7:45 AM

There is a similar duty free scam.
Buy a ticket and go through security then buy your full allowance of duty free alcohol/cigerattes.
Get a call about some emergency at home, leave and cancel your ticket. In most countries since incoming/outgoing flyers are separated you don't need to go through customs to exit the departure area.

Barley GrummitFebruary 4, 2014 8:02 AM

@NobodySpecial

The problem with that is that duty free really isn't anymore. They've adopted the petrol-station price model As one writer put it "duty free offers goods available at a fraction of the price - something like five fourths".


PiperFebruary 4, 2014 8:19 AM

Was he changing his itinerary early enough that the plane wasn't being left with an empty seat? Flying with empty seats would cost the airline more than his free bagels.

James SutherlandFebruary 4, 2014 8:32 AM

Peter Galbavy: Perhaps - in most airports I think they'd have to check in and go through security first, not all of them do meals, and you'd be tying up a lot of time to travel to and from the airport too.

A more obvious exploit would be booking a ticket for today, then moving it to tomorrow, then the day after etc as a way of holding a seat open for yourself almost indefinitely; if it is, or becomes, common enough to be an issue, I am sure the small print would get changed: a token change fee (even $10 a time would be trivial for genuine passenger changes, but stop it being a free meal), a limit on number of changes, something like that. Easy enough to stop this use without upsetting genuine customers if they feel the need to 'fix' it, I'm sure.

askmeFebruary 4, 2014 8:47 AM

OK, a little story.

I took the Red-eye into Heathrow and after arriving, realized that I had somewhere lost my bags and didn't have a suit for my meeting that morning.

The only place to get a suit at 6am in London is actually in Heathrow in the mall airside, but I had already exited customs/immigration. I was told I could not go back airside without a ticket. No problem. I purchased a full fare, fully refundable one-way ticket back to NYC (on a credit card) and proceeded to go through security and do my shopping.

I then turned around and went back through customs and immigration into the UK with no problems. Upon exiting customs, I was greeted (by name) by a number of large men holding submachine guns (rare in UK).

What ensued would have made Kafka proud: the police, UK border patrol (not sure their name) and customs officers all convinced I needed to be arrested, but not sure for what, exactly. They all argued that the other guys had to arrest me. After about an hour of arguing (all in front of me), they finally gave up and said I was free go. They all seemed much angrier at each other than me.

I refunded my airline ticket and headed to my meeting. Still have the suit.

So what the guy did isn't even that crazy.

andyFebruary 4, 2014 9:04 AM

@NobodySpecial:
Yes it is possible, it is also in many countries illegal. For real duty free (as available in non-eu countries) there is usually a requirement for the traveller to have been outside to country for a set amount of time. If less, you are required to pay the duty on your goods.

Failure to do so would be smuggling/evasion of duties.

So yes it is possible, but still illegal under many legislations and as such not so much a loop-hole as a criminal activity.

paulFebruary 4, 2014 9:07 AM

The reaction to this is a sort of intelligence test for airline managers. Sure, it's possible to guard against this sort of thing by putting various bureaucratic procedures in place, and doing so could save the price of perhaps several thousand buffet meals a year. (Minus the price of the new bureaucracy)

But. First class passengers are really profitable. They also tend to be frequent long-haul fliers. They also tend to be well-heeled, high-status and -- dare I say -- just the tiniest bit aware of the prerogatives due their position. So if even a few percent of them decide that whatever gets put in place to prevent meal-skimming is annoying enough not to fly your airline, you just lost more than the reduced food service could ever have saved you.

kFebruary 4, 2014 9:11 AM

as an explolit it Sounds like a huge personal / finatual risk the first time out.
If it had failed (by whatever means), then that would have been an expensive meal.

JohnFebruary 4, 2014 9:12 AM

At what airports does a first class ticket get you into the VIP lounge? I've never been to one, always had to pay the lounge day fee or stick to the places on the concourse.

TomFebruary 4, 2014 9:37 AM

@Barley Grummit - Not a new problem. I think it was in The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul that Douglas Adams described "Duty Free shops which are able to charge much lower prices than ordinary shops but - mysteriously - don't."

Brian MFebruary 4, 2014 9:38 AM

It's such a weird occurrence that I'm not even sure it's worth bothering to defend against.

Yea, but it's not like that has stopped airport authorities and airlines before...

James SutherlandFebruary 4, 2014 10:16 AM

@Barley Grummit: It's genuinely duty free if you're travelling outside the EU - but to prevent exactly this loophole, most places I've bought it in the last few years, your purchase is delivered at boarding, not before.

Bruce: "It's not the capital. It's the free time -- and lack of any other life -- to go to the airport every day."

Supposing you work there anyway? Airports have thousands of staff who would all need to be there every day.

Apart from anything else, though, there are other ways of getting lounge access cheaply; membership of frequent flier plans, the right credit card, or just buy a pass. Two of my colleagues bought annual lounge passes recently: for a fairly small amount (£100 or so?) you get light meals, soft drinks etc any time you're flying. Theoretically, perhaps the pair of them could have tried this trick instead, saving the £100 lounge pass fee. The airline would probably be happy to have the loan of £5000 for the year instead of keeping £100!

Joe SchumacherFebruary 4, 2014 10:48 AM

Do VIP lounges scan the ticket when you enter the lounge?

If airlines lounges are just looking at the ticket like TSA than why not just create your own first class ticket when you go to the airport for your flight. Forge Your Own as shown in 2006 post. You have your actual coach ticket when you fly but you booze up with first class before you fly.

I don't get such first class privileges and I would wager that the airlines first class lounge has better security than TSA by scanning the ticket. This is about money for the airlines and that seem to get more attention than security (just my first hand airport opinion)

NobodySpecialFebruary 4, 2014 10:51 AM

@James Sutherland - full fare tickets are very flexible, you can usually change them at any time or just not turn up. that's why airlines overbook flights - on the assumption that some full ticket customers will be no shows.
The price of a full fare ticket is often 5-10x that of the cheapest online fare - so they don;t sell many

dragonfrogFebruary 4, 2014 11:15 AM

I had a peek at the airport on google maps - it looks like there are residential areas within a few hundred meters of the airport. The fellow could conceivably have lived close enough that the airport VIP lounge was the nearest restaurant to his home.

And that's assuming going to the airport was a trip he wasn't going to make anyway. If he worked in the airport, or maybe a business right next to it, like a car rental place or a courier company's warehouse, he could have changed out of work clothes, popped over to the airport VIP lounge for his free supper, and headed home.

Clive RobinsonFebruary 4, 2014 11:29 AM

@ James Sutherland,

    Theoretically, perhaps the pair of them could have tried this trick instead, saving the £100 lounge pass fee.

A few years ago before Airport wide WiFi the only place with "public access" power and network ports was in the Airline Lounges, and some Airlines had "reciprical arangments" so you could go into a lounge with another airlines ticket / lounge pass (something that was usefull if you flew out of Seattle on BA).

I had a friend that actualy worked contract on an airport site they got a lounge pass because they flew home each weekend, But because he worked 6am-1pm he would slip into a loung every day after work to do emails etc and get a free lunch (and nick stuff for an evening snack back at their B&B). He was well known by the various lounge staff who new exactly what he was upto but it did not bother anyone.

I guess these days they would not regard it the same way.

I used to do similar with a UK railway that used to have a departure lounge, all you needed was an open return ticket at the appropriate fare level. As the lounge was out of sight of the platforms nobody did any checking over and above glancing at the ticket. Admittedly the food was only so-so sarnies and fruit, but the coffee was good and the chairs comfortable with a handy mains socket to plug the laptop into. I had reason to travel on the railway every three to four weeks on business so the company/taxman picked up the price of the ticket.

You can still pull "free travel" on mainline trains with open retun tickets even though they have automated ticket barriers. The trick is to go in and out with a crowd with luggage / children etc and hold your ticket in your mouth so the guy on the gate can see it. I know someone who stoped bying an anual season ticket (over 5,000GBP/year and only buys a couple of open tickets a month).

The simple fact is where ever there is a large system run the way many transport companies do where the staff know they are most definatly not "valued staff", they will turn a blind eye to a friendly person who says please and thankyou with a warm smile. Especialy when there is absolutly nothing in it for them by stopping you...

g4kjgn4kg4February 4, 2014 11:35 AM

@Bruce Schneier: The free time and a money tree to pick from so they have the free time instead of working to get the thousands of dollars it costs just for economy class seats..

small fryFebruary 4, 2014 1:04 PM

Well, maybe the guy just "lived" at the airport. Some of those lounges do have private shower stalls, and maybe short-term "nap" cabins, and maybe even laundry facilities.

You could spend you days wandering the concourses, making sure to have a different set of clothes on each day so you aren't recognized by anybody who would have a problem with what you were up to.

With free wifi, electricity to power your laptop, and free food, that initial $2000 investment for a ticket isn't a bad deal....

Martin SFebruary 4, 2014 1:44 PM

@olssy: Surprised no one buys stocks to get free meals at shareholder meetings...

I'm not sure if it's fact or urban legend, but in Sweden I've often heard of pensioners (and maybe others) who hold single or small numbers of shares in many listed companies, for that very reason.

On the other hand I don't know if you get actual meals at those meetings, or just coffee and snacks.

Z.Lozinski February 4, 2014 2:43 PM

@olssy: Surprised no one buys stocks to get free meals at shareholder meetings...

About 25-30 years ago, the Financial Times would carry an entertaining article once a year comparing the nibbles served at the annual meeting of British listed companies. And yes, I think more pensioners did attend these meetings. This was before mass share ownership, so even small shareholders were more important to the company management.

Z.Lozinski February 4, 2014 3:09 PM

@Joe Schumacher: Do VIP lounges scan the ticket when you enter the lounge?

Oh it's much more interesting than that...

The pay-by-the-hour lounges marketed by Priority Pass, and run by Servisair etc. scan your membership card (or credit card for the lounges that allow entry to premium credit card holders - mostly in Asia). This is so the local lounge operator gets a fee from the central marketing organisation. They could care less about your boarding pass, though some look at that to know which flights to announce.

The CIP (commercially important passenger) lounges run by the global airlines already know who the important passengers are before they enter the lounge. BA lounges (and the Purser on the a/c) used to have a printout of all the interesting passengers booked on each flight. So the Chairman/CEO of important British companies and senior execs in companies who did a lot of business with BA, and presumably any celebrities, oh and all the frequent travellers (BA Gold/Silver card holders). These days the list is on an iPad, which makes it harder to casually browse ... Some of the CIP lounges do scan boarding passes.

The airlines have been doing data-mining on passenger lists for commercial purposes for a *long* time.

The VIP lounges are different again. In the UK, the access list is controlled by the Home Secretary, and is basically Minister Ambassadors, Heads of State and entourage, some members of the Royal Family and some others of ministerial rank.

You can tell you've been travelling too much when ...

AndyFebruary 4, 2014 3:14 PM

@askme

So what happened with your somehow, somewhere lost bags?

Did the airline lose them, or did you leave them unattended at the airport of origin / transfer where they eventually became an issue for bomb disposal?

askmeFebruary 4, 2014 5:20 PM

Left my bag in a taxi (travelling so much I had stopped even paying attention).

I think the secret to my not going to jail was that after a red-eye I wasn't even coherent enough to lie about what I was doing. I was completely forthright about following the rules, but breaking their security theater. (also, I broke no rules, just pissed them off)

For reference, this was in 2010, so not a long time ago.

ASK

GodelFebruary 4, 2014 7:53 PM

@olssy I've heard of people in Britain who've bought a few shares in a large number of small brewing companies, then do the national tour of annual general company meetings, just for the free "samples".

:-)

WeiFebruary 4, 2014 8:11 PM

Isn't there any fees for itinerary change? And any upper limit on number of chance to change it? It's weird.

HarryFebruary 4, 2014 8:49 PM

re askme: my parents did a similar thing in order to spend a few more hours with me before a flight. They bought a fully-refundable ticket, went through security, we spent a couple hours hanging out, I flew away and they left, returning the ticket as they went. This was post 9/11 in a European airport.

In the US you can get a non-flyer security pass, like a boarding pass, that will get you through security. Any airline counter can issue it. Typically it's so someone can either escort another to the aircraft or meet another at the aircraft - children are a common reason - but I don't know the full list of acceptable reasons.

Jonathan WilsonFebruary 5, 2014 4:28 AM

I know that some companies here in Australia used to offer discounts in their stores to shareholders in their companies. They stopped doing that after too many people bought (and held) exactly the number of shares required to get the discounts.

FlyTooMuchFebruary 5, 2014 8:19 AM

A full fare, fully refundable ticket carries no "change fees" other than the fare difference (if any) between the original itinerary and the new itinerary. If you're just changing the dates it likely costs nothing extra to do so. I had one of these and had to make a series of changes a couple of weeks ago. The ease of use is the attraction. But they are *very* expensive. You feel like you bought the plane if you have one.

In the US the lounges aren't very exciting. It's better than hanging around on the concourse or at the gate but you wouldn't want to try this trick just to get free meals.

Outside the US there is more stratification between mere frequent fliers, business class and first class and the First Class Lounges can be very nice. Although the idea of going through security every day just to get a free meal still seems like a bad trade to me.

paulFebruary 5, 2014 12:18 PM

Harry:

There may be a list of acceptable reasons for a non-flying security pass, aka gate pass. But in practice it seems to be entirely at the arbitrary discretion of the check-in personnel, guided by their nearby TSA agents. We've done a fair amount of traveling with smallish children, and willingness to issue a pass has changed from month to month at the same airport, from airport to airport etc.

Which if you think about it doesn't say a lot about the airlines' or the TSA's opinion about the efficacy of their detection procedures.

KaitheFebruary 8, 2014 12:53 AM

I think we're getting a little confused on the term "VIP Lounge." My reading of the article suggests that it is nothing more than the 'normal' business lounge.

I am such an acknowledged traveller with my normal airline (Qantas) and they will either sight my member card or my boarding pass (which has my member number printed on it) before admitting me to the lounge. For International, they always scan the boarding pass so they know where I am (in case I fail to board).

As I understand it, entry is always available to anyone with a business or first class flight... or in my case, a gold membership (because I fly too much in economy!)

Based on my experiences, I cannot see how the trick would work on International flights, and (certainly in Australia) even on domestic as the boarding pass would have to be issued. Many years ago, all the Australian airlines had meeting rooms for members to use. Anyone (member of the flier program or not) could enter the lounge to join the meeting. This has long since been stopped.

Also, as Z.Lozinski notes, airlines are wont to acknowledge their better customers. A few months ago, I was sitting in the window seat (in Economy) awaiting departure with another passenger in the aisle; the middle seat being empty. The other guy mentioned, "I hope it stays empty." I reply, "I'm quite sure it will and you'll find out why in a couple of minutes." Sure enough, the door closes and the seat is still empty. At which point, the senior purser comes by, "Good afternoon Mr Kaithe, I hope you enjoy your flight with us; if there's anything you need, please ask for me directly." I turn to the other guy; "now do you understand why the seat is still empty?" BTW, this was Emirates, with whom I have no special arrangement; there is however a close alliance between Emirates and Qantas and both airlines support each other's frequent flier programs.

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