Is your travel agent biased?

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Ever wondered if you’re getting the lowest airfare or the best possible routing when you buy a plane ticket? Of course you have.

When Shaheed Sabrin clicked on Expedia.com recently to search for a fare from Los Angeles to Johannesburg, the online agency claimed the lowest available price was $2,300. Just to be safe, he checked a site called Skyscanner.com, which queries several travel sites at once. It returned a price $300 cheaper.

Sabrin, an actor and educator who lives in Los Angeles, wondered if Expedia was only showing him the fares it wanted him to see, as opposed to every available price.

“Not disclosing all options leaves consumers feeling ripped off,” he says.

That’s a fair question, and as it turns out, he’s not the only one asking. The Department of Transportation is concerned that ticket agents have biased their displays to disadvantage certain airlines on their websites. It’s proposing a new rule that would require online agencies to disclose any fare-fixing.

Expedia, the largest online travel agency, would not comment directly on Sabrin’s case but insisted it does not show preference for or bias flights.

“The reason travelers go to an online travel agent is so they can look at and easily compare all their options, spanning hundreds of airlines, including upgrades and fees, and find the ticket they need at the best price,” says Dayna Sason, an Expedia spokeswoman.

Orbitz and Priceline say their displays show no preferential fare rankings, and Nancy St. Pierre, a spokeswoman for Sabre, which powers travel agency fare displays, says its systems are “designed to provide a neutral display.”

Bias is difficult to measure or detect. For example, how much money have travel agencies pocketed because of display bias? No one knows. How can you tell if an online agency is offering an incomplete picture, as Sabrin suspected, or if a lower fare just became available? You can’t. Then there’s this: Would knowing who is biasing their fares change the way anyone books tickets?

The problem extends beyond online agents, says consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck. Airlines aren’t disclosing all their fares to travel agents, even though they’re required to by law. But he says regulators look the other way on enforcement, and as a result, it’s impossible to have every available fare at your fingertips. It’s simply unknowable.

“No travel agency has any way to know what range of prices any airline is offering, to whom, or through what channels,” he says.

It’s also difficult to tell how much money you’ve wasted, thanks to biasing. If anyone has that number, it’s the online agents who tinker with their fare displays, and they aren’t being talkative.

Hang on, says Jeff Klee, chief executive of CheapAir.com. Whether they’re buying airline tickets or anything else, most consumers don’t assume that every store has every possible product. (He doesn’t bias his fares either, he’s quick to add).

“I think this proposed rule is a classic solution in search of a problem,” he says.

Even if travelers knew some airfares were given priority, how would that change anyone’s behavior? Would a warning at the end of a fare display affect the way people purchase their tickets? That, too, is impossible to know until it becomes a requirement.

And it will, unless the DOT is inundated with comments from consumers that claim no one is interested in fare bias.

Of course, anyone who claims consumers are better off not knowing if their online travel agency is fixing its fare displays just doesn’t get it. More information — even if it’s stating the obvious, even if no one knows what to do with it — is better than less information.

Here’s hoping the rule flies. I, for one, am curious to know when my online agency isn’t telling me everything. Aren’t you?

Should DOT regulate fare bias?

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How to fight fare bias

• Cast a wide net. Search more than one online travel agency and check with an airfare aggregator, which queries numerous online agencies, such as Kayak.com and Skyscanner.com.

• Get insider information. Sites such as Google flight search (Google.com/flights) use technology that can search more sites. Also, a subscription service such as ExpertFlyer.com can show you more fares and fare combinations than many online agencies.

• Tell the DOT what you think. Leave a comment about its proposed disclosure rule. Click on regulations.gov and search for rulemaking DOT-OST-2014-0056.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    FYI, kayak will not break a “leg”. That is too risky. What Kayak will do is to split a roundtrip into 2 oneways.

  • TonyA_says

    The airlines follow the same rule (at least they used to).
    They do not schedule a flight at noon or midnight. Usually about 5 minutes buffer before or after.

  • TonyA_says

    Hi, you really need to read this fantastic research done by Partick Surry of hopper. I hope Chris Elliott reads it, too.
    bit dot ly/1sN1dvz

  • TonyA_says

    Yeah but it’s so funny the poll seems to think the government can regulate and cause search perfection.

  • bodega3

    Yes, it is just some people don’t bother to pay attention to am or pm!

  • TonyA_says

    I have had passengers show up in the late morning for a 1205AM flight. They think it is noon. :-)
    To avoid this we tell them to show up the night before.
    Many flights to Asia depart USA 1205AM to 1255AM.
    That’s my main market so we had to figure out what to do to avoid the confusion.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Ummm, I fail to see the problem. If I’m booking a $2K+ trip, you can bet I’m going to spend at least an hour on line over several days to get what I want at the best fare. Don’t see why there should be more regulation; what’s needed is some common sense.

  • LFH0

    Some interesting stuff there. I’m not so sure I agree that there really is that much of a correlation between price and average household income (those scatter diagrams are not all that persuasive), but I do think he’s on-point as to population density and competition. All of the research I’ve seen has shown that large metropolitan areas were the greatest beneficiaries of deregulation, while rural areas ended up paying more. Moreover, I would suggest that density and competition are themselves correlated (more competition exists in denser markets), and therefore they’re not really independent variables –they’re measuring the same thing. The distance factor plays in somewhat, but much less so than the mutually-dependent variables of density and competition. Distance explains cost only where there’s great disparity in distances being compared. Good stuff here.

  • VoR61

    Hacker fares: what a TERRIBLE label!

    So, if I understand your statements, Kayak will show multiple airlines for a route ONLY if they or Priceline, or Expedia or ????? will sell both segments EVEN though I click their link to the airlines’ sites.

  • TonyA_says

    I think hacker fares appear only if the SAME vendor will sell the separate tickets of different airlines for the WHOLE JOURNEY.
    I could be wrong but that is my observation. I’ll pay closer attention and document it next time.

    I made a test in Kayak for a route we fly regularly. Note it is for White Plains to Little Rock, HPN-LIT 17JUL to 26JUL.
    If we search for the whole roundtrip journey, Kayak prices it at $436. But if we price each direction separately, look what we save — $30 per person.

    So why no hacker fare here? Maybe because each fare was being sold directly by their respective carriers. Maybe, No OTA was willing to put them together for cheaper.

  • bodega3

    Days?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    you cannot regulate bias !!!!

    Bias is a fact of line in everything we do.

    Even if you tried to regulate it, very easy for someone to get around it.

    Remember also that regulation, costs someone & it’s usually the consumer !!!

    Many airfares can’t even be found online.
    Eg.
    Many airfares ex Australia, flying out on one airline & coming back on another, can’t be found via online search engines.
    In OZ, they are often called net fares & only published fares make it to online search engines.
    We fly to USA regularly & fares we usually get through a traditional travel agent are much cheaper, especially in peak period, than ANYTHING ONLINE.
    Last Xmas, agent gave us a cost based on payment within 24 hours (by either cash or card) & looked online & it was AU$1004 cheaper per person, than online on very similar but not exact itinerary (same dates, same flight in one direction, but codeshare equivalent in other direction)

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    IATA is very quickly becoming irrelevant.
    LCC’s & ULCC’s are taking over.
    Cebu Pacific, just launched SYD/MNL, an 8 hour flight & launch fare was AUD$99 one way, which was basically a free fare & you pay the taxes (it costs AUD$55 in departure tax, (which is about USD$52) to depart Australia & you get absolutely nothing at all for it, just a fed govt tax + there are other silly security taxes & fees for “privilege” of using the privately owned airport terminal.
    Airports seem to be the only real money makers these days in aviation industry, at least in OZ.

  • bodega3

    NO IATA is not becoming irrelevant.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    IATA is so 20th century & soon it will die, as no airline will take ANY notice of it.

  • bodega3

    There are over 200 carriers that are members of IATA. As a traveler, you should appreciate the safety measures that IATA members have to follow.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    & soon there will be none !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You can’t be a member of an organisation that no longer exists, as living in the past.

    It’s called progress.

  • bodega3

    We’ll see. I don’t follow your view.

  • Lindabator

    They show flights for each SEGMENT – do not break up per LEG — so Detroit – Chicago – Fargo on ONE AIRLINE — same connection on return on 2nd AIRLINE. But will NOT show you Detroit – Chicago and Chicago – Fargo ——- far too many problems splitting in that situation.

  • Lindabator

    In that case – the OTA may have had space held in a group, which was NOT available for public sale. Can happen.

  • Lindabator

    True – I always tell groups I speak with that they need to interview US travel agents the same they would a doctor or lawyer. You may visit a doctor who is considered the “best” at what he does, but he just doesn’t click with you, so NOT the best option for you. Same with a TA.

  • Lindabator

    AMEN – have always explained this VERY carefully to my clients – no nasty surprises later on!

  • Mark Carrara

    When booking for Hawaii I found it was cheaper to fly San Diego to LAX to Honolulu than direct from LAX. Same airline, same flight number

  • VoR61

    Seen this also. The mystery continues …