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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Thanks for writing this post. I just ran a search on ITA the way you suggest above, which returned a $171 fare for one-way BWI-DFW-LAX. I then ran a search on AA.com for one-way BWI-LAX on the same date (through the regular engine, not multi-city), and it returned the same price for the itinerary I had originally found on ITA.
I was able to select seats and hold.
Did it return a higher fare if you search just BWI-LAX? If not then you’re not seeing a fare/route with the issues. It is not always there but it is in several instances I searched this morning.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doubting that the issues exist, because I’ve seen this thing happen numerous times. I’m just pointing out that the issue manifests itself with varying degrees of consistency, and that running multiple searches through a variety of channels can’t hurt, which I believe is related to your point.
Any thoughts on the accuracy / helpfulness if Google flight search? I’ve been increasingly using it to quickly spot check routes and itineraries, mainly for its speed and clean interface.
Google Flights is just as accurate as ITA, which makes sense as they’re based on the same technology and Google owns ITA. But it suffers the same problem with how the search is structured. If you simply look for the city pair (LGA-AUS in the example above) it will show the higher price. If you do multi-city it will find the lower fare. But it still won’t book when pushing you through to AA.com.
Thank you for the post! Is this type of ticket legal in the contract of carriage?
Yes, it is legal in the CoC as that doesn’t cover how much you pay or how you buy the ticket. The better question is whether the DoT sees it as legit or false advertising vis a vis the claims to offer the best fares.
It’s called married segments. AA sets inventory levels on LGA-AUS and prices accordingly. So LGA-AUS may have zero Q fares, but the LGA-DFW and DFW-AUS flights do show Q fares when checked separately. AA.com has business rules in place when booking to catch attempts to get around married segment inventory controls. As you discovered some OTAs do not.
Right or wrong that’s what’s happening.
I know it is based on married segments. But the implementation is, at best, sloppy. And at worst it is downright false advertising.
Can web support issue a ticket at the lower price / avoid the married segment logic?
What’s interesting is that the price is still higher if you force a stopover in DFW, but that it only drops if you do a multi city search.
Which leaves a question, how do you find cases where this happens with ITA or OTA s?
The only way I know of to find out if it is happening is manually. And that sucks.
Could this be a case where you can claim lowest price guarantee and profit from it? After all, it’s the same flights.
ditto Tale’s comment – how do you know if you this is happening? Tough to do manual searches when comparing multiple options.
I have a situation which truly calls into question whether Delta is playing games and raising fares as you book. As a delta AMEX cardholder I tried to book a trip with free companion ticket. The fare (fare code U) was $332 up to the moment I entered the site as seeking a companion fare. the fare jumped to $399 and after I ticketed the fare returned to $332. The fare has not changed for days since.
Delta told me they have no way to verify, do not believe me and all they can offer is that I not travel and lose my money and companion coupon.
I have been both an AMEX cardholder and aDetal frequent flyer for years. I do understand rules, buckets and lies.
Could you not have refunded the initial purchase within 24 hours? Almost certainly too late now, but at the time was it possible? Also, was it still a U fare? Me recollection of the DL/AmEx companion thing is that the lowest fare buckets are excluded.
Reply to your follow up!
I had the issue of DL upping the fare when I introduced a companion coupon.
I was stuck. The companion coupon is not valid if you cancel the ticket.
The fares were absolutely in U class.
I’m most familiar with United’s “low fare guarantee”, but might guess that AA and DL have similar ones. On UA, if you are very, very patient, you can collect a penalty by demonstarting that you were offered a lower fare on a third party website than offered on their own site. Couldn’t one exploit that in cases like you mention here, and at least pick up the penalty for all your trouble?
I have some experience with similar issues on the UA site. They would not honor a claim made via multi-city versus O/D searches. I only tried the once, though. I have no idea if AA or DL would behave the same way, but I’m guessing that when the agent tries to search it on the OTA and you have to explain all the extra steps required they’ll deny the claim, just like UA did to me.
I don’t doubt they make it difficult to collect the low fare bonus, and admit to never having tried myself. But I would have thought that the screen shots you presented here, together with time stamps, would be documentation that is unambiguous. Their advertised “lowest fare bonus” doesn’t qualify the guarantee by also stating “you can’t invoke our behind the scenes married segment logic” and I would think the DOT would agree.
Seth, I ran into this very problem on AA about a month ago. I called web services and they told me I was breaking the fare rules when trying to deconstruct the itinerary. The work around that solved the issue was to simply book one way trips rather than a round trip. It doesn’t exactly match the issue you are showing above, but it shows that one must do multiple searches in order to find the best fare.
Very interesting, Seth. Two questions:
1) So just to make sure I understand — this happens when AA has a cheaper filed fare for the full route, but is only providing the necessary availability on the individual segments, not when they’re “married”? (Which would mean you could also detect these circumstances using something like Expertflyer, not that it would save any time).
2) Any sense of how the airlines view this on the “scale of ethics”? Seems like it could potentially be viewed in the same light as fuel dumping.
Recently had to purchase 14 tickets for a job in France. I accidentally found a desired itinerary but then found it hard to find later when actually booking, which was producing searches with higher fares and much less desirable routing. I was able to book the flights on AA using the method you described with lots of time invested in searching. Saved me hundreds by forcing the routing through Miami and London instead of New York and Madrid. Very difficult to get the route to show properly and the airline websites make selecting your own routing display in a routing mode which only displays the price in the final screen.
I also found that booking through BA’s website logged in to the United Kingdom site netted me a $100 savings for a $350 flight from Heathrow to Bordeaux vs the price the US website offered.
Great post! Thanks for actually booking the fare and testing the whole thing out.
I keep finding multi-city DL fares that are cheaper than the one-way connecting flight. I’ve been able to get matrix, kayak, orbitz, and even dl.com to price them – but they always error out when trying to complete the booking. DL, even lets me enter my c.c. info before erroring out.
Priceline, travelocity, hipmunk, and expedia all price the multi-cities as the more expensive end-on-end fares 🙁
Any other suggestions for OTA’s that might let me actually complete the booking?
Yes, and this is the equivalent to grocery stores offering a cheaper price for goods to people who take the time and trouble to clip coupons.
Thanks for this post. Just too late for me by 3 days.Tried booking LAX-JFK-LHR with return BRU-LHR-JFK-LAX (needed these flights to use available C space for SWU’s). AA site priced at $1233 but then I got into the loop and could not get past it. The reason given was that the fare classes had changed but I tried a dozen times over a 24 hour period and kept getting $1233 but could not proceed and finally before the C space evaporated I called EXP line and booked the exact same flights but for $1463 ($230 more). I feel cheated but will remember it when the class action law suits start.
Are Married Segments visible in the fare rules?
Trying to understand how the OTAs see these rules.
They are not, unfortunately. The only way I’m aware of to know that you’re seeing married segment inventory logic is to query the individual segments as well.
In the first example, the higher NYC-AUS fare was in V fare bucket; in the second example, the lower NYC-DFW-AUS fare was in N fare bucket. Presumably, the lower fare is technically available, but the N inventory is not available when booked as a connection. Isn’t this a married sector inventory issue (as earlier comments suggested) rather than a fare construction issue? I run into this exact married sector problem a lot with AA and it’s very frustrating. What I don’t understand is how Orbitz was able to book it, since AA wasn’t making N available when the two sectors were booked as a connection.
(As a related aside, it’s frustrating that you can’t set an ExpertFlyer alert for the inventory because it is available on the individual sectors and EF doesn’t support an alert for married sectors.)
Seth, I have not read your related articles, but have you seen this case in international airfare?
I haven’t really tried with international fares. I wouldn’t be too surprised, but I really just don’t know.
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