Airlines want passengers to believe that we’re getting the best fares when we do a search online, that they are looking out for us even as they are trying to turn a profit based on our patronage. Alas, that seems to be the case less and less often. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are the latest carriers identified as offering different fares on the exact same flights depending on how the search is performed.
Let us take the hypothetical trip from New York’s LaGuardia airport to Austin, Texas on a random Sunday at the end of July. These are the flights I’d like to book:
Plugging in the search of LGA-AUS on ITA, Hipmunk or the American Airlines website I generally get the fare of $322 for that one way trip with the flights booked in to the V fare bucket.
But what if I search differently? What if I tell the system to search for LGA-DFW + DFW-AUS instead? Saving 40% probably is not what you’d expect to have happen but that’s what the computers say. The fare drops to a much more customer-friendly $190. And, as you can see in the ITA-supplied breakdown below, it is not an end-on-end fare. This is still a single fare component.
So, now that we know the cheaper fare is available there is the challenge of trying to book said fare. Unsurprisingly, the AA website is not too cooperative. Putting the parameters in the multi-city search interface yields promising results:
Alas, when trying to enter the passenger information and get to the payments page one gets stuck in a loop, unable to complete the purchase.
The price isn’t going up to the “normal” fare of $322 in this case and I don’t know where the change is coming from but getting past the loop does not appear possible.
As is typically my approach the next step was to try via Hipmunk. That didn’t make things any better. Actually, it managed to price as a true end-on-end ticket, driving the fare up significantly.
And so it was off to the OTAs directly to see what was possible. Hooray, Orbitz, for pricing the flights at the cheaper rate. Note that Expedia and Travelocity did not find the lower fare.
And the booking confirmed without any issues (I’ve since canceled it as I have no real intention of flying the trip and Orbitz offers a free cancelation until 11pm ET the following day).
I performed similar searches with Delta as the carrier of choice and received similar results (though not quite identical):
The final number on the Delta flights via Orbitz was not identical to the ITA fare but it was still more than $100 less than just buying the one-way ticket on the Delta website.
A Delta spokesman provided the boiler-plate response expected in such situations, a response which misses the crux of the issue:
Airline fares can be affected by a variety of factors, including number of seats available within a particular fare class for people traveling on the same itinerary; the cost of providing the service; the cost of jet fuel; time and date of purchase; the route flown; and the fare class purchased. Delta offers a wide range of fares for leisure and business travelers, and our best fares are always available at delta.com.
And so, once again, we are left doubting the integrity of the airlines. They are actively manipulating the fares not based on the inventory they have available but based on the way a customer asks the question. Many years ago they got in a lot of trouble with regulators for not providing the lowest fare available when potential passengers would call on the phone. Eventually they had to change those practices and offer the lowest fare for the flights requested. And, in theory, that should have carried over to the online point-of-sale as well. It seems that they’ve decided to play fast and loose once again, however, penalizing the consumer.
Even more challenging is that airlines are seeking more control of the sales process via the New Distribution Capability services. Hard to believe that consumers are really going to win with that change.
Finally, don’t forget that United is doing the same thing, too.
Thanks to the Paranoid one for the tip which started this hunt.
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