Are airlines pulling a bait-and-switch?

Mironov/Shutterstock

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?”

Why, indeed?

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.”

“If I go back, as Delta.com tells me to do, and search again, it will do the exact same thing to me once again,” he notes.

To him and to many of his readers, it appeared that Delta was intentionally baiting passengers with a low price and then claiming that it wasn’t available, but that they could pay for a more expensive ticket.

Delta would not discuss the specifics of deLambert’s complaint on the record. The airline released a written statement saying that it always strives “to provide our customers with the most accurate information possible on delta.com,” adding: “When the occasional ticket price changes during a customer’s purchase experience, we fully disclose the change to them prior to the completion of the transaction so as to provide the most updated information and allow an informed travel purchase decision.”

All of which brings us back to the question of inaccurate fare displays and what lawmakers could do about them. If these “phantom” fares don’t violate the Transportation Department’s controversial “full fare” advertising rule, then what does?

True, the current rule prohibits carriers and ticket agents from engaging in bait-and-switch tactics. But the DOT defines that to mean that a carrier or ticket agent can’t repeatedly advertise a fare at the beginning of the ticketing process only to present the consumer with a higher price at the end, according to the agency.

“We have heard isolated anecdotal reports involving fares that were cached or stored on a server for a period of time during which the selling entity’s Web site displayed that fare as current and available, when, in fact, it had been replaced with an updated — usually higher — fare,” says DOT spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey.

To incur the wrath of the DOT, which regulates domestic air travel, an airline would have to “systematically and intentionally” use caching as a method of luring consumers to its Web site or increasing the price people pay. Put differently, someone would have to catch an airline or ticket reseller doing it over and over again, and show irrefutable proof. Given the fickle nature of today’s online booking systems, that may be impossible.

Novak’s case had a happy ending. After my inquiries, a FlightHub representative contacted her and promised to send her a check for the difference between the rate she’d originally been quoted and the one she paid for her ticket.

The rest of us probably won’t be so lucky if we ever see a disappearing price. Caching is a known glitch in today’s airfare distribution system. The federal government tolerates it up to a certain point.

Passengers want to know the truth about their fares, but airlines may be incapable of telling it.

Should the government allow airlines to display fares that are unavailable because of caching?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

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.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Google Plus

  • Michael__K

    The whole motive for caching the prices behind the search results is to avoid querying and holding live inventory and all the concurrency complexity (and slower performance) that would entail.

    And that means that when someone presses “Buy”, they may discover “the price is no longer available.” I think we agree that this is a legitimate, defensible scenario.

    But that last step — which generated “the price is no longer available” message — had to hit live inventory. At that point, the vendor KNOWS that its cache for this particular price is stale. It checked live inventory and the price wasn’t available. The cache needs to be updated.

    If you then start over and search again and again and you STILL continue to see the old (and still unavailable) price, then that is either a glitch or a shoddy implementation choice, IMO.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I remember when Continental started to charge to make a res by phone … I said, “Hmmmmm, I wonder if people realize that when all the humans are gone and we are forced to book online, nobody will help us or answer our questions.” Now it’s gone a step further with bait & switch. Much as I’d like to troll around for the cheapest fare, I don’t have the kind of time it takes input my information a thousand times to avoid the fraud. I’m with rpt, most of the time I use an OTA to find out who goes where, then book directly.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I agree, the illustrations seem to appeal to the lowest common denominator, another way of saying the dumbest. They seem to be trying to be sensational and attract attention … not the attention of thoughtful travellers but someone who watches TV all day. I’m a Chris Elliott fan from way back … if there’s a way to look at the last 4 or 5 illustrations, I would be happy to make specific comments.

  • TonyA_says

    I agree, some OTAs update as soon as they see the cached data is obsolete. Some don’t. I have actually been doing informal research on this for about 2 years. IMO, I see more problems with Orbitz/Cheaptickets compared to Expedia and Priceline. I do welcome cache pricing display regulations from the DOT. Either they must update the cache when an anomaly is discovered or temporarily remove the offending quote until the whole cache is updated – that is my recommendation.

    Also full disclosure of the type of e-ticketing engine is required.
    Are users being e-ticketed online during the same session, or not?
    Are they simply ordering online and getting ticketed offline?
    What is the maximum waiting period for e-ticket fulfillment?
    Where is the credit card being charged? What country?
    We can come up with a list :-)

    Similarly all agency fees need to published upfront with a conspicuous link in the front page. IMO more people get screwed using a lousy online agency than they do by airlines.

  • bodega3

    But that doesn’t mean you are getting the best fare, just the fare you see.

  • Guest

    I actually was going to ask if any of the woman in the recent group of pictures actually worked for you and if so, does your wife know, and are you hiring?

  • PsyGuy

    I actually was going to ask if any of the woman in the recent group of pictures actually worked for you and if so, does your wife know, do you take the pictures, and are you hiring?

  • Jim Cargill

    Anyone come across an instance where the update message is “Hey, we’ve now got a lower fare for you!” I guess not. :-)

  • Mel65

    I might believe this were truly just a caching issue if JUST ONCE, someone could show me where the fare displayed went DOWN prior to finalizing the purchase ;)

  • bodega3

    I have had that happen in my GDS! Fares change many times a day and they go down, as well as up.

  • bodega3

    Yes. In our GDS we have a pricing entry that does just that.

  • Lindabator

    Exactly – but folks don’t understand this

  • Lindabator

    Generally, prices go up as space sells out, so not the norm

  • Lindabator

    But as space sells OUT, the fare goes UP

  • Lindabator

    But not on the otas generally – folks do not realize that as space sells out, the fares go up.

  • TMMao

    It looks like TripAdvisor is still pulling the same tricks. Just did a search for that same trip and there was an incredibly cheap fare listed. But click on it and this message pops up:

    $336 – Current lowest fare. The $123 fare, found 7 hours ago, sold out.

    So their cache doesn’t even update for 7 hours?

  • bodega3

    Tripadvisor doesn’t sell tickets and they don’t sell hotel space. They provide links and get paid if you book via those links.

  • bodega3

    Sadly, they are not shown how this works, so assumptions are made of bait and switch.

  • Mel65

    I know… I was being facetious for the most part… but it sure would be a happy surprise for a change.

  • TMMao

    So who sells the flights then? Go to TripAdvisor, click on flights and it goes to the TripAdvisor flight booking page. There’s even a whole section below that explains why we should use TripAdvisor to book flights. How would anybody not in the ticket booking business know it’s not TripAdvisor selling the flights?

    BTW, their caching is now even worse:

    “$353 – Current lowest fare. The $144 fare, found 1 day ago, sold out.”

    Why TripAdvisor Flights?

    More Choices, Better Deals

    No need to shop multiple sites any more. We’ve already done that by
    searching hundreds of them for you– scouring premium airlines, low-cost
    carriers and the biggest online travel agencies for the best deals.
    We’ll even check alternate dates and nearby airports to help you save
    money, time, even sanity.

    In-Flight Experience

    Want Wi-fi? More legroom? Or even a seat that allows you to sleep
    perfectly flat? TripAdvisor Flights now makes it easier to find the
    amenities that can make or break your trip. Find which flights include
    Wi-Fi, live TV, power outlets, free baggage, and more.

  • bodega3

    Tripadvisor directs you to a variety of OTA and carrier sites. They are not an ARC ticketing agency.