and Why Air Fares Change When You Go to Book Them
Bait and switch? You decide.
One minute it is there;
the next minute it has gone, and the wonderful low fare you
found has now been replaced by a nasty expensive price for
your planned travels.
Is it Murphy's Law?
Is it bad luck? Did someone else take the last seat
at the low price you found only a minute before for the air
travel you were researching?
Or is this some type of
sinister bait-and-switch by online travel companies and the
airlines, leading you in with a low fare, but when you then
decide to buy it, trying to then force you into a higher fare?
Here's an explanation of what
is happening. You can decide if it is fair, honest, and
excusable or not.
The Problem of the Vanishing
Low Air Fare
So there you are; you've
just spent half an hour or more researching the cost to fly
somewhere, and you find the lowest possible fare somewhere on
You double check the dates
and times, and all looks good. So you click to book
the travel at the low fare you've found, and after a pause, the
system comes back to tell you that the fare is no longer
available. It helpfully offers you an alternate fare,
typically substantially more than the fare you'd been offered
just a minute or two ago.
While it seems
understandable that perhaps the last seat at the low fare you
saw just a minute or two ago sold out in the brief time between
the fare being displayed and you going to book/buy it, the
chances of that happening are slim to none. There is some
other factor influencing the disappearance of the seat/fare you
were offered just a minute or two prior.
What are the chances of 'your'
fare being sold out in the five minutes between seeing it and
trying to buy it?
Think about it this way - a
typical plane with maybe 175 seats on it has its fares available
for sale for about 330 days. If the plane departs with 165
of the seats sold,
that means that, on average, one seat was being sold every other
day. In other words, airlines typically sell not one seat
every other minute, but one seat every other day! Sure,
there are some times when seats sell more quickly and some times
when seats sell more slowly, but in general it is fair to say
that at least an hour or two or three can always pass between one seat
being sold and the next seat being sold.
If you think about it some
more, the chance of the fare you've found just a couple of
minutes ago being sold in that short time frame is even more
remote. Even if someone did buy another ticket between when
you first saw the fare displayed and when you went to buy it,
there are two more considerations.
Firstly, maybe the other
person bought a different type of fare, which still left all the
seats allocated for your type of fare untouched.
Secondly, maybe the other
person did buy a seat in your fare type, but maybe there was
more than one seat remaining, so all that happened should be the
number of seats available reduces from 2 to 1, or from 25 to 24,
etc; with there still being a seat available for you.
chances of the seat/fare you saw being advertised as available
five minutes ago disappearing in five minutes are as close to
zero as make no difference.
But, if you're like me, you
will occasionally - not always, but sometimes - have a situation
where a fare disappears on you as described here.
What's up? What's
ITA - The Industry Secret
To understand what is
happening to the availability of fares, you need to understand
some of the behind the scenes activity that occurs between the
airline computers and your computer screen.
Enter ITA Software - a
company formed in 1996 and an important behind the scenes
participant that powers many of the online travel agencies'
airfare search engines.
When you query the cost and
availability of flights through, eg, Orbitz, Orbitz generally
does not in turn go out and ask all the airlines for information
about the flights and fares they have available. Sure, in
theory, Orbitz could do this, but it would cost it some
money to do so, because (in simple terms) the airlines charge every time someone
like Orbitz queries their database.
Instead, Orbitz asks ITA
Software for the information.
ITA itself goes out and
queries airlines on availability and fare information on a
regular basis, and then stores this information in its own
databases. So when it receives a query from Orbitz (or any
other user of its services) it accesses its own cached data to
provide the answer. The way that ITA adds value (and makes
money) is that in theory it is only querying the airline
databases perhaps once every two or three (or five or ten)
queries it in turn receives from online travel agencies.
So it can afford to charge
for queries to its database at a rate less than what the
airlines charge, and still make a profit, because in effect it
hopes to be reselling each airline query that it does several
times over, albeit at a lower cost per query.
By only querying the
airlines directly every few hours (or sometimes even longer) ITA
is relying on the same point we calculated before - seats sell
slowly on flights and most of the time, it is satisfactory to
rely on data that is some minutes or hours or even a day old.
The online travel agencies
seek to obscure this part of their business model. When
you are being told that the fare you wanted to buy has gone and
now there is a higher fare, they don't explain 'Sorry, but we
relied on information that might have been as much as a day out
of date when we told you about what was available a couple of
minutes ago.' Instead, they obfuscate and give the
impression that the fare they told us about a minute ago truly
was there, then, but disappeared in the short time between then
Google purchased ITA in early July 2010. For an
interesting insight into the possible implications of this
purchase, see our article 'Are
the Airlines Seeking to Create Unique Fares Custom Priced for
Information You See Might Be Out of Date
Now that you know about ITA,
you can understand that when you ask an online travel website
for airfare availability, the information you get back may not
be up to date.
When you ask for an airfare
quote, the website queries ITA and returns information from ITA.
The information from ITA might be fresh, but it might also be an
hour or even a day old.
When you then go to book the
airfare, the website next goes direct to the airline to book/buy
the space you request.
And so, for the first time,
you are then getting connected directly to the airline and its
realtime seat/fare availability information. Most of the
time it will be the same as what ITA projected it to be
(remember the worked example above showing that fare
availability really changes very slowly) but because there is
not just a few minutes of delay, but potentially up to a day of
delay between the initial availability information from ITA you saw a few
minutes before and the realtime information direct from the
airline, there is a magnified chance of the fare having been
More often than not, if
there have been more seats sold in the intervening time, this
will probably reduce the availability of the lowest fares and
might cause a problem.
Very rarely the fare has
dropped not risen
Rarely the opposite may
occur and the fare drop.
An airline might decide that a flight is selling
too slowly and so might release some more seats into a cheaper
fare category. Or perhaps they have had a group cancel off
a flight, releasing a large block of seats back into unsold
These events are however
comparatively rare - almost by
definition, if an airline has sold out of the cheap seats, then
the flight is selling/filling well and the airline rarely adds
more cheap seats at a later date.
So - Bait and Switch or Bona
Every internet travel website that
shows air fare information could in theory show more uptodate
information if it was willing to pay the airlines to directly
query their database every time you asked the website about
availability. They choose not to do this so as to save
themselves money and so as to draw us in to their site.
The cost they are saving is
something under 1c per query.
Oh - and the airlines?
The cost to them to provide the data in the first place?
Minute fractions of a cent. Computing power and data
bandwidth is so inexpensive these days that one can only guess
if the cost is 1/100th of a cent or perhaps 1/1,000th of a
cent to answer each query.
To put this another way, the
reason we get invalid information is because the online web
travel agencies have made a financial decision to present us
with the cheapest rather than most accurate data, and they do
this because the airlines and the intermediary services that
move the data between the online agencies and the airlines have
all decided to profit from our attempt to buy, and the online
travel agency's attempt to sell, an airfare on behalf of the
For us as customers, the
situation is simple. We ask a source of airfares for the
lowest available fare. The source tells us. We
promptly respond and say 'Okay, I accept this offered fare, here
is my credit card' and are then told 'Sorry, we were wrong,
there actually aren't any seats at that price at all.'
Do you think it is fair and
proper and honest to offer airfares for sale when the company
offering the airfare doesn't really know if the airfare is
available or not?
Do you think it is fair and
proper that when the company offering the airfare gets it wrong
and the airfare has gone, we should be the ones that carry the
cost of their error, rather than the company which can't now
make good on its promise/offer of only a minute or two before?
Shouldn't there be a law
against offering something for sale that in reality doesn't
Is this a bait and switch?
I've deliberately simplified
some parts of the explanation of air fare displays and related
issues here, so as to make an
arcane subject approachable and understandable, and I hope
you'll agree that the simplifications do not detract from the
validity of the explanation I offer.
If you disagree or wish to add
to the discussion, feel free to post your own thoughts on the
blog entry related to this post here.
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23 Jul 2010, last update
28 Nov 2012
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