'Fare jumping,' other problems plague first-class fliers

Consumer group conducts tests of online travel sites

Strategies

April 17, 2005|By Bob Tedeschi | Bob Tedeschi,New York Times News Service

The Internet is perhaps the only place where first-class fliers are treated like second-class citizens.

A report issued last month by Consumer WebWatch, a division of Consumers Union, said that people who spent the most money on airline fares must at times overcome serious technology failures in their quest to book premium tickets. According to Forrester Research, an Internet consulting firm, nearly 19 percent of Americans who booked tickets online last year bought domestic business or first-class tickets.

William J. McGee, the report's author, said sites had "straightened out most of the early problems they had with straight domestic fares, like functionality or showing wacky itineraries."

"So I was surprised, but not pleasantly, at how many basic problems we ran into when we tried to book something a little more complicated," he added.

For instance, the report said that Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity each experienced problems with "fare jumping," when consumers in search of premium fares select a fare from search results, only to find that the price changes after they click on it and try to book it.

One first-class fare on Expedia increased $748, from $641.19 to $1,389.19, in less than 30 seconds. When flights are booked by phone, the price quoted is generally the price the consumer pays.

Travelocity was responsible for first-class fare jumps in 4 percent of the searches that Consumer WebWatch conducted, with Expedia at 3 percent and Orbitz at less than 1 percent.

"Prices changing in real time is not accepted in any area of commerce," McGee said. "This is a problem that has to be corrected."

If Web sites do not correct the problem, which is because of both ticket demand and the inability of the technology involved to track inventory changes efficiently, McGee said, Consumer WebWatch would consider pressuring sites to honor the prices.

"We've been pointing out fare jumping for two years," he said. "Each time we did, the sites responded by saying it's a technology problem and it's being addressed, but, unfortunately, it hasn't been addressed."

Tracey Weber, Travelocity's senior vice president for air, car and last-minute deals, did not dispute the Consumer WebWatch findings, but she said that Travelocity was addressing the problem of fare jumping. "We know it's not a good consumer experience, so we've worked on that a lot," she said.

Weber and other travel executives and analysts said fare jumps happened because the online travel agents were not directly linked to the inventory systems of the airlines. Rather, they go through intermediaries that keep airline seat inventories in giant databases.

Those inventory systems, called global distribution systems, do not always have the freshest price information, which in some cases changes so frequently that between the time the travel agency site queries the distribution system for a requested fare and the consumer actually clicks on that fare, the prices could have changed.

Airline Web sites are generally free of fare jumps, analysts said. The three airline sites tested by Consumer WebWatch exhibited no fare jumps during premium-class queries primarily because the sites are directly connected to the carriers' inventory systems.

Aside from fare jumps, travelers booking first-class tickets online must confront situations where sites mix economy-class tickets into the first-class search results. According to the report, all three e-travel agencies mis- labeled or failed to label fares on "multiple" occasions. In some cases, the sites presented first-class fares on carriers, such as ATA, Spirit, AirTran and USA 3000, that do not provide first class.

Weber, of Travelocity, said the WebWatch testing happened during an overhaul of the site late last year, which could account for the glitches. Kendra Thornton, an Orbitz spokesman, said her company could not account for the mislabeling.

David Dennis, an Expedia spokesman, said the fare-class switches "came as a surprise to us." He added: "Two years ago, we put a lot of work into making sure that doesn't happen."

For instance, Dennis said, if a visitor searches Expedia for a first-class fare and the site finds itineraries for which only a certain leg of the trip is first-class, the site will prominently display a note to that effect. "So we know that this shouldn't have happened, and we're digging into it deeper," he said.

For first-class ticket bookers looking for bargains, the Consumer WebWatch report said that Expedia performed particularly well against the competition, returning the lowest fare 40 percent of the time, compared with 31 percent for Travelocity, and 28 percent for Orbitz.

But Orbitz scored the biggest savings on a single first-class ticket, on a flight from Dallas to Newark on American and Continental. The Orbitz fare, $950 round trip, was less than half the $2,300 fare quoted on the American Airlines site and Travelocity. Expedia did not return a first-class fare for the itinerary.

And while the Consumer WebWatch results may have been disappointing to researchers, consumers can probably expect improvements in first-class services in the future, as more wealthy customers look to book premium tickets online.

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