a Difference a Hyphen Makes: Untangling the Air(-)Hitch Confusion
By Sascha Segan
March 1, 2004
August 6, 2003
-- When it comes to AirHitch, a system for getting cheap
standby seats on international flights, the hyphen makes
all the difference. Because there are two AirHitches. Both
claim to be the real thing, and both are dedicated to getting
people onto airplanes, but that's about all they have in
many inquiries from travelers confused about the two Airhitches,
and each company showed us a slew of emails from perplexed
souls. With low airfares available by other means nowadays,
the legal death match the companies are undertaking, and
the general inconvenience of standby travel, we're uncomfortable
recommending either Airhitch to most travelers. But the
tale of the two Airhitches, and of the unusual system of
air transportation they run, is a story of a unique corner
of the travel world.
is the original, an all-volunteer organization run by an
aging idealist named Robert Segelbaum that promotes a "sociopolitical"
system of travel requiring lots of patience and a thick
skin. We'll call it AH/S.
Travel Solutions (www.air-hitch.com) is the newcomer, founded
by an Israeli entrepreneur named Jacob Hinenson who says
he bought the company name from Segelbaum. Air-hitch is
a for-profit business where they say they can often guarantee
travelers standby seats 24 hours in advance of flying. We'll
call it AH/H.
Who's the real
Airhitch? That's for a court to decide -- the two companies
are locked in a legal battle in federal court over the company
name, Web addresses and phone numbers. Each side moved for
summary judgement in June, but it may be a few months before
the court takes any action, according to David Ferber, Hinenson's
The Secret History
Long ago, back
in 1969 when idealism reigned over profit, a young man named
Robert Segelbaum got an idea. Airline flights were never
full, and airlines lost money for every empty seat they
had. Why not fill those empty seats with low-budget travelers
willing to jump onto planes at the last minute?
developed a system of standby travel. He called his system
Airhitch, and it became popular with students. Airhitching
wouldn't get you to a specific location on a specific date,
but it could get you from the US to Europe cheaply -- if
you were flexible about exactly when and where you were
willing to leave from and arrive to.
than businessman, Segelbaum contracted with travel agencies
to sell standby vouchers based on his idea. His relationship
with the agencies varied. After a spectacular falling out
in 1993 that landed in court, some of his former licensees
formed Airtech (www.airtech.com), yet another seller of
problems began in 2000, when the relationship between Segelbaum
and his fourth corporate licensee, Whole Earth Travel, deteriorated
sharply. Segelbaum then decided to take the Airhitch name
to Jacob Hinenson to explore the possibility of forming
a new company together.
Earth still claimed to sell Airhitch vouchers, providing
steadily worse customer service until they collapsed into
Chapter 7 bankruptcy in late 2001, leaving a lot of Airhitch
travelers stranded and confused.
By the end of
2001, Hinenson and Segelbaum had fallen out. Segelbaum says
he still owns the Airhitch name; Hinenson says Segelbaum
sold it to him in late 2000. That's what they're fighting
over right now.
So, two Airhitches?what's
Which Hitch is
(www.airhitch.org) is a conceptual system, not a business.
Travelers interact with AH/S entirely over the Internet,
via a network of volunteers led by Segelbaum himself, who
resides in Martinique.
30 years of experience with Airhitch, and his past ventures
have been recommended by Arthur Frommer and others. But
his new organization is run differently from previous Airhitch
Credit card payments
are processed by a Rhode Island travel agency, Sophisticated
Traveler (www.sophisticatedtraveler.com), which doles out
the money to the airlines involved. According to Segelbaum,
that allows AH/S itself to remain a purely "sociopolitical"
organization, but to us, there's a disturbing diffusion
of accountability in this multi- pronged approach.
responsive and seem to be genuinely trying to help, the
AH/S staff often came off to us as rude, abrasive and exacting.
Consider it a test to see if you have the thick skin necessary
to Airhitch in the first place.
To fly with the
AH/S concept, you sign up on their web site (www.airhitch.org)
and give a multi-day time period during which you're willing
to fly, as well as the regions you're trying to fly from
and to. A flight from "northeast North America"
to "Europe" could depart from anywhere between
DC and Montreal, landing anywhere from Lisbon to Berlin.
When you're ready
to depart, you get in touch with the AH/S staff through
the Net, and they give you a list of potentially Airhitchable
flights with their approximate likelihood of success. It's
then up to you to trek to the airports involved and see
if there's room on the relevant flights, checking back with
the AH/S volunteers via the Internet to get further advice.
It may take a couple of days, though Segelbaum claims most
people get on board the first flight they choose.
pay a $29 fee to participate in the system, you'll only
be charged for the flight once you get on board. If you
don't fly, you only owe the $29 fee, and Segelbaum says
that is often refunded -- but getting that refund appears
to be an arbitrary practice based on the AH/S volunteers'
(www.air-hitch.com) is a New York business with an office
in Manhattan, but the office wasn't staffed when we called,
and the company does most of its business through the Net.
Hinenson himself spends most of his time in Israel, leaving
a general manager, Rafi Rabinovitch, to run the business.
While AH/H isn't
a bonded travel agency (yet), Rabinovitch says they have
formal agreements with 20 airlines to provide standby, space-available
travel. Travelers pay AH/H in advance to get access to an
online flight list, showing a long list of flights to their
destination with their rough percentage chances of getting
onboard. We saw one of AH/H's flight lists, and it showed
flights from a smaller scheduled carrier and from some large
Many AH/H flights
can give you confirmed seats 24 hours in advance of the
flight; you e-mail AH/H two days before the flight and get
back a confirmed seat number without having to go to the
airport. For other flights, you've got to go to the airport
to inquire, just like with AH/S. "We don't sell anything
that we can't board passengers on," Rabinovitch told
refunds for anyone who buys a voucher but doesn't board
the plane, but we've seen several complaints from travelers
who have had trouble getting refunds.
Too Much of a
Hitch in Airhitch
Right now, we
can't recommend using either Airhitch.
First of all,
international discount airfares have largely caught up with
Airhitch prices. AH/S charges $165 plus taxes each way to
Europe from the east coast. For a roundtrip flight from
LA to Paris, AH/H charges $429-$489 plus taxes. During cheap
seasons, we've seen lower fares from Priceline, Hotwire
and the airlines themselves. Even during high season, hunting
for sales may be more effective than using either Airhitch.
Second, the Airhitch
process is a genuine pain. While it may appeal to students,
the unemployed, and other people with a lot of time on their
hands, Segelbaum warns that if you have to be in a specific
place at a specific time, Airhitch isn't for you. He calls
this "unstructured" travel -- and time for truly
unstructured travel is something too few Americans have.
Airhitch gives us much faith in their customer service.
(Segelbaum claims to have no customer service, because he
has no customers. Whatever.) AH/H has a virtual office,
a CEO in a foreign country, and nine complaints in the past
year filed with the New York City Better Business Bureau.
AH/S isn't actually a business and is staffed by a faceless
army of abrasive, acronym-obsessed volunteers.
My closing thought:
if, in spite of all of this, you do decide to Airhitch with
either organization, please make sure you're using a credit
card where you can refuse charges that you deem improper
Note: This information was accurate when it was published,
but can change without notice.
the two Air Hitches
(Air-Hitch.org / How
Air Hitch works / Air
Hitch Fare Options)