The low airfare that vanishes in a click

By | February 28th, 2010

Now you see it. Now you don’t.

When you’re airfare shopping, attractive prices can vanish in a split second. Just ask Jim Doll, a systems engineer in Atlanta, who recently tried to buy a ticket to San Francisco on AirTran Airways’ Web site. He found a one-way fare for just $130, but by the time he’d toggled over to to see if he could do better there and then clicked back, the price had changed.

“Now it was $220 per person,” he said. “Why couldn’t they lock the fare for, say, five minutes, to give me a chance to make the reservation?”

Why, indeed? Because that’s not how reservations systems work. When you find a fare online, it isn’t actually there — it’s cached on the site. Caching, or storing a copy of the fare information, is cheaper and makes everything run faster. But there’s a price to be paid for the speed and convenience: A small number of fares — usually less than 5 percent — may no longer be available when you try to book them.

This is the “underbelly of the whole reservation system,” said Timothy J. O’Neil-Dunne, a managing partner for T2Impact, a technology consulting firm. “It is a dirty secret that the industry would rather no one know about.” But some customers think there’s more to blame than clumsy Internet technology. They believe that travel companies intentionally display a low fare but raise it as you move through the booking process, an electronic version of the time-tested bait-and-switch scheme. Although there’s no proof that any travel company is engaged in this illegal pricing activity, there’s plenty of evidence that travel companies try to lure customers with artificially low prices.

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I can see the skeptical customers’ point. A few weeks ago, I booked a flight from Orlando to Las Vegas. I found a $114 one-way fare on the Southwest Airlines site, scrolled away to make sure couldn’t do better (it couldn’t) and then tried to buy the ticket.

“New Price,” the site announced in annoying red letters. The same ticket now cost $234.

I felt frustrated. If I had been notified that there was only one seat left at $114, I might have booked faster instead of taking my time. Hasn’t technology evolved to a point where you can show a passenger the seat inventory in real time, I wondered?

A spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, says the vanishing fares aren’t a bait-and-switch scheme but a “normal turnover” in ticket prices. “It reflects marketplace competition and has produced dramatic reductions in average fares since deregulation, as well as in the last few years,” said Victoria Day.

Whether this sleight of hand is intentional or not, there’s no need to become its next victim. The easiest way to avoid a fare surprise is to make a faster booking decision. Not a knee-jerk response, but less than, say, five minutes. The longer you wait, the greater the chance that the seat you wanted will be snatched up by someone else, and that the cheap fare will be replaced by a more expensive one.