Mt. Vernon Register-News

Features

May 27, 2014

Airfare honesty? It may be an oxymoron

GARY, Ind. — Alina Novak's complaint had a familiar ring to it. While she was searching for an inexpensive round-trip ticket from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on TripAdvisor.com, she stumbled upon a $177 airfare.

But when she clicked on the "buy" button, TripAdvisor redirected her to an online travel agency called FlightHub.com, which required her to enter her credit card information. Then, just before processing her transaction, it delivered some bad news: The low price she'd been shown wasn't available, but she could have a ticket on the same flight for $393.

"To quote a much higher price after a purchase is fraudulent," she adds. "Why such a discrepancy?"

Why, indeed?

Customers such as Novak — and there are a fair amount of frustrated passengers like her out there — say that this is a bait-and-switch; that TripAdvisor, or FlightHub, is intentionally displaying a low rate and then switching it out after a purchase decision is made. Travel companies dismiss that claim, calling it an electronic hiccup from an airfare distribution system that sometimes can't handle real-time transactions.

A TripAdvisor representative declined to comment on the specifics of Novak's complaint, citing privacy reasons. "But we have investigated the situation, and there was no error on the TripAdvisor site," said spokesman Kevin Carter. FlightHub did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Novak's complaint.

The issue of fare advertising has taken on a renewed sense of urgency now that Congress is considering removing the Transportation Department's full-fare advertising rule, which requires airlines and ticket sellers to display a price that you can actually book. Incidents like Novak's and that of one loyalty-program blogger have called into question the travel industry's narrative about fare displays and raised an even larger question: Are travel reservations systems — and, specifically, airlines — even capable of telling the truth about their prices?

Congress is about to let airlines off the hook on this issue. The Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 would give airlines a federal license to advertise a low "base" fare and add taxes and fees later in the booking process, before you buy a ticket. Countering that, the Senate is mulling a separate bill that would not only leave the full-fare advertising rule in place but would also double the maximum penalty from $27,500 to $55,000 a day for airlines and large ticket sellers who fail to show an "all-in" fare.

I receive regular missives from readers about disappearing prices, most commonly airfares. Technology experts blame the problem on caching, or storing the fares to make them faster to access online. They say that caching sometimes allows a fare to show as available when it's already purchased. But once you try to book it, the system will return an error and point you to the next available fare, which is usually more expensive. Stopping these false positives, experts add, would require an expensive top-to-bottom overhaul of existing reservations infrastructure, which is built on aging legacy systems.

Historically, these glitches have been played down as rare and isolated, but a recent investigation by a blogger raises some doubts about that claim. In a blog post published on the site DeltaPoints.com, René deLambert describes his recent effort to book a ticket between Dallas and San Francisco. He details each step with a screen shot of Delta.com, which shows how he selected a low fare and then proceeded to checkout. Each time, the system informed him that the "price has just gone up."

"If I go back, as Delta.com tells me to do, and search again, it will do the exact same thing to me once again," he notes.

To him and to many of his readers, it appeared that Delta was intentionally baiting passengers with a low price and then claiming that it wasn't available, but that they could pay for a more expensive ticket.

Delta would not discuss the specifics of deLambert's complaint on the record. The airline released a written statement saying that it always strives "to provide our customers with the most accurate information possible on delta.com," adding: "When the occasional ticket price changes during a customer's purchase experience, we fully disclose the change to them prior to the completion of the transaction so as to provide the most updated information and allow an informed travel purchase decision."

All of which brings us back to the question of inaccurate fare displays and what lawmakers could do about them. If these "phantom" fares don't violate the Transportation Department's controversial "full fare" advertising rule, then what does?

True, the current rule prohibits carriers and ticket agents from engaging in bait-and-switch tactics. But the DOT defines that to mean that a carrier or ticket agent can't repeatedly advertise a fare at the beginning of the ticketing process only to present the consumer with a higher price at the end, according to the agency.

"We have heard isolated anecdotal reports involving fares that were cached or stored on a server for a period of time during which the selling entity's website displayed that fare as current and available, when, in fact, it had been replaced with an updated — usually higher — fare," says DOT spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey.

To incur the wrath of the DOT, which regulates domestic air travel, an airline would have to "systematically and intentionally" use caching as a method of luring consumers to its website or increasing the price people pay. Put differently, someone would have to catch an airline or ticket reseller doing it over and over again, and show irrefutable proof. Given the fickle nature of today's online booking systems, that may be impossible.

Novak's case had a happy ending. After my inquiries, a FlightHub representative contacted her and promised to send her a check for the difference between the rate she'd originally been quoted and the one she paid for her ticket.

The rest of us probably won't be so lucky if we ever see a disappearing price. Caching is a known glitch in today's airfare distribution system. The federal government tolerates it up to a certain point.

Passengers want to know the truth about their fares, but airlines may be incapable of telling it.

1
Text Only
Features
  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 22, 2014

  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • web_starbucks-cof_big_ce.jpg Starbucks sees more Apple-like stores after Colombia debut

    This week Starbucks opened its first location in Colombia — a 2,700-square-foot store with a heated patio, concrete columns, mirrors on the ceiling and walls of colorful plants.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 11.16.48 AM.png VIDEO: Comcast apologizes after customer service call goes viral

    Comcast issued an apology after one of its representatives kept a customer captive on the phone for nearly 20 minutes, demanding to know why he was choosing another cable provider.

    July 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20110929_bowling.jpg Why fewer people go bowling

    Like other industries facing tough economic times, America's bowling centers are trying to reinvent themselves.

    July 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Almost half of the world actually prefers instant coffee

    Americans' taste in coffee might be getting more high-end _with a growing fixation on perfectly roasted beans, pricier caffeinated concoctions, and artisan coffee brewers - but it turns out a surprisingly big part of the world is going in the opposite direction: toward instant coffee.

    July 14, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 11.24.10 AM.png VIDEO: Pilot buys pizzas for storm-delayed travelers

    A Frontier Airlines pilot went above and beyond the call of duty when a recent flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver was diverted to Cheyenne, Wyoming due to bad weather.

    July 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 11.46.13 AM.png VIDEO: Foiled beach gear theft goes viral

    Video capturing a bizarre confrontation with two women allegedly attempting to steal beach gear on a Florida beach has gone viral.

    July 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • Nation's first soda tax could come to Berkeley

    The Berkeley City Council unanimously decided last week to put the 1-cent-per-ounce tax on the ballot this November. Approving the tax would mean a major defeat for the soda industry, which has spent millions to crush the effort nationwide.

    July 10, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks