Comparison shopping is a four-letter word for airlines. Anytime, a consumers can compare prices of a ticket on Delta, United and American the airlines feel they are losing. And, they are. They are losing to the free market.
Airlines don’t like fighting with each other. They love dividing up the market, restricting distribution of pricing data and ancillary fees, creating complex pricing mechanisms and, in general, making comparison shopping as difficult as possible for their customers.
Last week, Senator Schumer (D, NY) called out the airlines and specifically Delta Air Lines for restricting the distribution of their airfares on many online travel agency sites. As previous posts on Consumer Traveler and Travelers United had noted, Delta is at war with their customers and their distribution system.
“The ability to bargain shop on these websites … is facing some serious turbulence,” Schumer said. “If we do nothing they might be gone in a year or two.”
Popular booking websites allow passengers to compare prices and flight times from various airlines and seek out the cheapest rate. They account for about 44 percent of bookings, according to the websites. Without participating, airlines force passengers to book directly with the airline and pay higher fares, Schumer said.
“It’s utterly amazing,” he said. “You call the airline, and the price of a ticket is $500. You go on one of these websites and you can get it for $200 or $199.”
Southwest has never allowed a middleman to sell tickets on its behalf. Frontier Airlines announced in 2013 it will no longer allow customers to book tickets on Expedia. Lufthansa announced recently an additional $18 fee for customers booking on a third-party site. Delta also started limiting its data to online travel sites.
Delta Air Lines is the poster child for this behavior.
The airline has stopped, since last autumn, the ability of sites like Hipmunk, SkyScanner, Travelzoo, Trip Advisor and others from being able to display prices for their flights. These are online travel agency sites that provide the ability for consumers to comparison shop for various flights.
Hipmunk displays flights based on what they call the “agony factor.,” based on length of flight and any layovers or connections. This site provides consumers another way to compare flights. However, until last autumn, the site also provided prices for Delta flights that allowed comparison shopping based on airfares as well as “agony.”
Since last year those price comparisons are no longer possible because Delta has forbidden the site from displaying their airfares. Though passengers may see Delta vis a vis other airlines based on “agony factor,” users will not find the airfares for direct comparison shopping.
This is an in-your-face attack on comparison shopping and the free market.
Travelers United has spoken with the Department of Transportation (DOT) in an attempt to stop this practice. The consumer advocacy group states that when airlines use the public systems, such as the air traffic control system and municipal airports, to engage in business they must make their airfares public. They are common carriers.
If airlines are allowed to use the publicly funded infrastructure paid for by consumers and passengers, then they must abide by the rules of common carriers and post their prices publicly. (Even Southwest Airlines that does not participate in most online travel agency sites, clearly advertises that their airfares are available elsewhere to make comparison shopping easier.)
Delta Air Lines’ attempt to force consumers to use the airline’s own website simply places consumers in a situation where they cannot comparison shop.
All consumers should use travel agents and online travel agency sites whenever possible. Though airlines are attempting to force passengers into their Web worlds, passengers should support their local travel agents as well as the large online travel agencies and metasearch websites as much as possible.
Only with open websites and travel agents dedicated to making price comparison a central part of purchasing travel and working in the consumer interest, can consumers comparison shop. This applies to hotels, airlines, rental cars, and virtually all forms of travel.
Local travel agents plus, Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hipmunk, Skyscanner, Travelzoo, TripAdvisor, Cheapflights, and others are all serving the consumer interest and making the free market work. Use them as much as possible. Don’t let the airlines force passengers into a situation where they cannot comparison shop.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.