FORT WORTH, Texas -- So you have to catch a plane in a few hours to get to an unexpected business meeting. The cheapest fare, of course, will be on discount leader Southwest Airlines, which doesn't gouge last-minute passengers like other airlines.
Right? Well ... maybe not.
A new study from the University of California, Irvine suggests that it might pay to shop around before booking that Southwest ticket. The report concludes that last-minute airfares are more expensive on Southwest, on average, than on other airlines when consumers use online searches such as Orbitz or Travelocity.
The study's author says his conclusions deflate the long-standing belief that Southwest, the dominant airline at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, is always the low-fare leader on last-minute flights.
"There is always this assumption that Southwest is the low-fare airline, and that all you need to do to get the best deal is go to their Web site," said Volodymyr Bilotkach, an assistant professor of economics.
Because Southwest does not participate in most online travel sites such as Orbitz, he said, it's difficult for consumers to compare the carrier's prices with other airlines. "So I thought it would be interesting to do that comparison myself," he said.
Bilotkach and several assistants compared fares offered at Southwest's Internet site and on Orbitz on tickets purchased a month in advance as well as so-called "walk-up" tickets bought one or two days before the flight. Walk-up fares are most often bought by business travelers, and airlines charge more because customers don't have much choice so close to the flight.
After reviewing fares on 238 routes, they found that although Southwest offered cheaper prices on the advance-purchase fares, the airline's last-minute prices were significantly higher in many cases. On average, Southwest charged about $34 more on those flights, or about 9 percent more than the best available Orbitz fare.
Southwest officials didn't dispute Bilotkach's numbers, but they said the disparity stemmed from the fact that their customers tend to snap up the cheapest tickets quickly, leaving only the most-expensive seats still on sale at the last minute. Many other airlines tend to reserve some cheap seats for the last minute to make sure a plane flies as full as possible.
"What they found were the few straggler discount seats on the other airlines," spokeswoman Beth Harbin said. "Our customers are pretty darn smart, and they know how to grab the discount fare."
Harbin also pointed out that the airline's most-expensive fare - now $339 each way - is far below what rivals sometimes charge for walk-up tickets.
The bottom line, Bilotkach said, is that consumers should always shop around, even if Southwest is offering a cheap ticket.
"Don't assume anything; always check the alternatives," he said. "There's a good chance you might save yourself some money."