When Direct Flights Aren't Direct

08/27/2012 07:06 am ET | Updated Oct 27, 2012

I'm writing this post while on my direct flight from Washington to California. Yet remarkably, I'm currently sitting on my direct flight in a terminal in Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

How, you might ask, can I be both on my direct flight and at the same time sitting in an airport on a layover?

The answer, it seems, has to do with a deceptive sales technique used by airlines (in this case, United) to confuse their customers. By giving the same flight number to two separate flights, the airline can disguise the fact that a "direct" flight otherwise has one or more connections. In my case, this involved a nearly two-hour layover and a change of planes, even though the website from which I purchased the ticket never listed this (supposedly nonexistent) layover in the windy city.

In short, I fell for a decades-old deception practiced by certain airlines. When purchasing the tickets, I made the mistake of missing the distinction between "direct" and "nonstop" flights. Only "nonstop" flights do not, well, stop. "Direct" flights, as it turns out, can make multiple intermediary stops, and include multiple plane changes, while still being marketed by the airlines as "direct." (A quick google search has revealed stories of passengers on direct flights who missed the second segment of their "direct" flight because the first segment was delayed, presenting a situation where two planes flying on the same flight number were in the air simultaneously.)

From some brief conversations over the past hours, few of my fellow travelers were aware of the distinction between direct and nonstop flights. Most of the friendly United counter staff simply grinned and rolled their eyes when I asked them about this, completely aware that their employer had intentionally misled one of their customers.

In the Airline's defense, I should have noticed, when I purchased the tickets, that what is otherwise a five-hour flight was listed as taking eight hours. But that was the only piece of information indicating that this flight was to make intermediate stops. And having flown this route not infrequently, I, no doubt like many other customers, failed to notice the extended flight time and focused instead on the fact that the flight appeared to be direct... I mean, nonstop.

In the grand scheme of things, this was merely a minor inconvenience, and I'll no doubt arrive at my final destination soon and without harm. But I write this piece nonetheless, simply to draw attention to this misleading sales practice. Because at the end of he day, United's labeling of these flights as "direct" serves only one purpose: to confuse their customers and convince them to purchase flights on which they otherwise would not have flown.

This is a deceptive sales practice, pure and simple. It exists so that airlines can promote their less popular flights in search rankings, and sell these less popular flights to unsuspecting consumers, often at a "nonstop" premium price. (Moreover, some airlines award frequent flier miles as if the flight was nonstop, even though they should award them based on the mileage actually flown.)

Visible charges, like those for checked baggage, food, and so forth, are aggravating in their own right. But they are both visible and allow airlines to keep down the prices of their tickets for those willing to forgo these extra services. (Mis)labeling flights to confuse customers, on the other hand, is morally indefensible, and borderline fraudulent.

Again, in the grand scale of injustices, this "direct" vs. "nonstop" flight mislabeling is merely a small inconvenience. But as it has afforded me a few unexpected hours of computer time, I thus felt that I, like the airport in which I'm sitting, should put out a quick public service announcement of my own:

DIRECT flights are a sales deception, and have NOTHING to do with our English understanding of the word "direct." Do not confuse them with NONSTOP flights, which are in fact, nonstop.

For me, United has now dropped down to the bottom of my list of preferred airlines. Until they change this misleading sales practice, I'd suggest others do the same.