United has, over the past couple years, made many changes to the way they price fares. They’ve enacted rules on their website to artificially limit the options displayed in many cases, skipping double connect options even if single connect trips are much more expensive. And they’ve enacted married segment logic to price more efficient routings higher than those with longer layovers. And then there is the part where they change the price being charged for the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS depending on how you ask about them. It seems that United simply doesn’t know how to price its own tickets and, not surprisingly, it works against the customer, sometimes with a massive penalty.
The following example was shared with me by a friend looking to head west from Pittsburgh to Phoenix for a long weekend at the end of April, leaving in the evening and returning on a redeye. The flights he wanted were pretty straightforward but pricing them is anything but. Like most consumers he started with a simple search (I’ve replicated the searches here) – PIT-PHX round trip.
And, upon choosing the flights which worked in his schedule, he was presented with a fare north of $640.
Note that the fare is actually being calculated as a multi-stop trip, with a split at EWR. This is how the GDS platform did the pricing all on its own; there was no effort to manipulate or force anything, other than selecting the outbound and return flights as pairs (PIT-IAH-PHX was a single selection in the search interface).
Change the search just a tiny bit and the fare can drop significantly for the exact same flights. This time around I told the system that I was definitely going to route via Houston, making it a “stop” in the search process.
Selecting the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS in the results presented gave a rather lower price, a savings of more than $100.
Looking at the fare construction it is still a multi-stop itinerary with the breaks in the same places. For no apparent reason United has simply decided to sell a K fare on the outbound PIT-IAH-PHX rather than the W fare it previously was showing.
But wait…there’s more!
Split the return trip as well and things get even more confusing. Now, specifying each leg individually returns an even lower price.
Yes, there are a couple more clicks in the selection process, but the SAME EXACT FLIGHTS are now pricing at only $370, a savings of more than 40% off the original asking price.
The fare construction in this case is, interestingly, the most simple of the three options. It is a straight round-trip fare PHX-PIT + PIT-PHX. And it is $270 cheaper than the wacky construction the system started with.
As part of their Customer Commitment United promises:
On our website, at our ticket counters and city ticket offices, or when customers call United Reservations to inquire about a fare or reservation, we will tell customers that the lowest fare we offer may be available through one of our other sales channels, if that is the case.
Technically they aren’t breaking this rule as they are offering the lower fare for sale online even while only showing me the higher fare initially. And I’ve had calls in the past with their “Low Fare Guarantee” group who have told me that the difference between searching multi-city and regular routings is enough for them to weasel out of providing that guarantee, though it is not clear that’s a reasonable exception. Still, in both cases it is clear that they are operating in violation of the spirit of the rule and, unfortunately, in a manner which lines their pockets at the expense of the customer.
When I was chasing down the story about the double connections being hidden on the UA site while showing on other OTAs a UA rep responsible for handling my complaint gave a response which essentially said it was OK to only show certain results because customers value their time:
Customers have expressed interest in reaching their intended destinations as quickly as possible with minimal connecting flights. I see the fare results submitted were obtained through a search on a query done on Orbitz.com which provides an additional search option of two or more stops. While not all itineraries have options for two or more stops, we provide fares for customers to reach their destinations as quickly as possible.
In this case, however, it is not that different flights or routings provide better fares; United is pricing tickets differently based on how you search. If that is not misleading and deceiving then I don’t know what is. An itinerary should have a single price for a passenger, not a variable number depending on which specific clicks one makes to get to the final page. Consumers are getting screwed and many likely don’t even know it.
Even worse, in this case even the other OTAs are showing the “bad” fares to begin with.
Also worth noting that it is not just this route where there are issues. PIT-BWI suffers the same fate:
BWI-FLL has a similar, though not quite as dramatic issue:
The customer can’t win.
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