“Could the airlines have a new trick up their sleeves?”

airI love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next consumer advocate. So when Eric Smith contacted me with evidence he said suggests the airlines are trying to pull a fast one, I paid attention.

Better yet, this one’s a 9/11 conspiracy theory.

Smith explains.

I came across something strange in my Travelocity Fare Watcher. Might interest you.

Here’s the story: I’m planning a trip from BWI (Baltimore) to MOB (Mobile, Ala.). Dates are 9/12 through 9/21.

Here’s the problem. I’m not getting any alerts from the fare-watcher system. Why? Because American and US Airways published a one-day fare, $228 round trip from BWI to MOB.

Now here’s the strange part. To get this fare, both legs of the round trip must be flown on Sept. 11. You would have no more than six hours in Mobile before you would have to fly home. I’ve never seen a round trip fare like this. Have you?

Could it be that the airlines have figured out that by offering a low-ball fare, on a trip no one in their right mind would take, they can interfere with fare-tracking systems?

Could the airlines have a new trick up their sleeves?

What do you think?

Interesting. So if I understood this correctly, the airlines were somehow manipulating Travelcity’s fare alert system to generate undesirable itineraries.

A few days later, Smith followed up with another email.

There seems to be a war going on between travel Web sites and the airlines.

I told you about this a while back and the problem seems to have gotten worse.

In checking my Travelocity “Farewatcher” (Travelocity’s fare tracking feature), every search I do contains a low-ball, one-day, roundtrip fare on Sept. 11.

Call me paranoid, but I think the airlines are doing this to disable fare tracking systems. Who, in their right mind, would take a round-trip airline flight all in one day?

So I think the airlines figured out that offering a low-ball fare, on a flight that no one will book, is a cheap way to disable fare watchers, since any fare changes that occur above this price point are ignored and no alerts sent to customers.

The smoking gun will occur on Sept. 12th. If a new, cheap, 1 day round trip pops up to replace the Sept. 11 flight, there will be no doubt that the airlines are offering the fare only to confuse fare trackers. Maybe Travelocity should change their fare-watcher to filter out these one day fares.

Yapta, on the other hand, allows tracking of individual flight pairs. This is better, but not entirely immune from airline shenanigans. If the airlines change any parameter of the tracked flights, the system no longer tacks said flight pair. For example, the arrival time of a flight is pushed back 10 minutes. That flight then becomes “untrackable” in Yapta’s system.

I e-mailed Travelocity about this, but never got a response, Maybe you could get them look into it.

Am I being paranoid, or do you think the airlines would really stoop this low?

Well, at a time like this, I don’t think there’s anything the airlines wouldn’t consider doing to increase their revenues. But intentionally deceiving a major online travel agency and its customers?

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I asked Travelocity.

I talked it over with our flights guys and, yes, they feel he’s been spending too much time in front of his computer. Basically, we give the carriers way too much business for them to plot against us in such a manner.

So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. They wouldn’t.

Or would they?

I put it to you, dear readers. Have you noticed any funny business with fares lately? If you have, please comment or send me a note and I’ll investigate.

Why? Because no one can resist a good 9/11 conspiracy theory.

(Photo: tsmyther/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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