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, Fla., 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?”
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.”