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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 common.

We've gotten 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.

Airhitch (www.airhitch.org; EDITOR'S NOTE: link disabled, site now links to adult material) 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.

Air-hitch Air 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 lawyer.

The Secret History of Airhitch

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?

So Segelbaum 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.

More visionary 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 standby travel.

Airhitch's current 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.

Meanwhile, Whole 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 the difference?

Which Hitch is Which?

Segelbaum's AH/S (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.

Segelbaum has 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 operations.

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.

While they're 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 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.

Although you 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' pleasure.

Hinenson's AH/H (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 charter airlines.

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 us.

AH/H guarantees 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

We cannot 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.

Finally, neither 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.

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