One way or another, the way you buy an airline ticket is about to change.
Behind the scenes, the propellerheads who create your fares are working on a smarter way to sell tickets. The airline industry is developing technology standards that could serve up a special fare intended only for you, based on how often you fly, where you live, your gender, age or marital status. But online travel agencies and consumer advocates are skeptical of customization.
Well, this is one time the airline industry almost got it right.
Custom fares are a terrific idea, as long as they’re done with the passenger in mind.
But the industry’s proposal, called Resolution 787, needs a little work before regulators with the Department of Transportation clear it for takeoff. There’s a right way to customize a fare, which puts air travelers in control, allows them to easily compare fares and doesn’t require they surrender any personal information. And, there’s an evil way.
“If by ‘customized’ you mean the airline will use its collected marketing knowledge of me to offer a special price just for me, then it is not going to be what I want,” says Jim Elekonich, a senior applications engineer from Toledo, Ohio. “It’s what they want me to want. How can it be anything else?”
Elekonich is afraid that custom prices, if they’re offered by the airline, will be a rip-off, “but with no way to prove it, since everyone else’s customized pricing will be known only to them,” he says.
The International Air Transport Association, the airline trade organization behind Resolution 787, claims custom fares would allow you to compare prices to ensure you’re getting the best deal, and it’s been making the rounds in Washington with a multimedia presentation to convince critics of its good intentions. But the association says the ability to generate a custom fare is just a technical standard, and can’t guarantee it will be used to make airfare shopping easier or more straightforward.
Passengers don’t trust the airlines.
“Just the fact that airlines want to do this should be a big clue that it isn’t in consumers’ best interests,” says Rachel Thuerk, a risk manager from Cambridge, Mass. She’s afraid airlines will use their technology to calculate the maximum price you’re willing to pay for a ticket, then make that offer directly to you, and no one else, meaning you could end up paying more than you otherwise would under the current system.
It’s something she says the aviation industry already does too well.
“Airlines are actually better at this kind of price-setting than most other industries, since they can charge different prices based on days and times of travel and length of time before flights are booked,” she says. Customization would allow them to do that on an individualized level, she adds.
Of course, there’s a correct way to customize a fare. Already, passengers feel betrayed by “unbundling” — the act of quietly stripping the ability to check a bag or make a confirmed seat reservation from a base fare, in order to earn more money. Last year alone, the airline industry pocketed $27 billion in these “a la carte” fees.