Is this a completely lost cause?

When someone starts an email with “Is this a completely lost cause?” the answer is usually, “yes.”

Is this one of those cases? I’ll have the answer in a moment. Actually, you’ll have the answer.

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Here’s what happened to Hilda Piell when she was trying to book a flight on the American Airlines website: While booking the fare, the website warned her that there was only “one seat left” at the cheapest fare.

“Although it was more money than I wanted to spend, I felt compelled to purchase the seat for fear that the seat would be purchased by someone else and the cheapest fare would be gone,” she says.

The price: $625.

“Imagine my surprise — and my husband’s unpleasant reaction — when a friend booked the exact same flights today for $406,” she says. “I couldn’t understand how this could possibly be the case.”

Piell wants the difference between the two fares refunded.

“Is this a lost cause?” she asked.

The short answer is, “yes.” The long answer: Maybe.

Fares are priced dynamically, using sophisticated yield management software. So a ticket price can change hundreds of times before the flight departs. This is known to experienced air travelers. In fact, pros will book their flight and walk away, knowing the prices will fluctuate. They don’t care. It’s how the system works.

For inexperienced air travelers, this can look like a bait-and-switch.

“I feel as though I got taken by one of those Internet scams, but in this case the scammer is not some fly-by-night operator but a major trusted American brand I’ve known my whole life,” she says.

Piell called American and spoke with someone who said he was a manager. She offered to cancel her ticket so she could rebook at the $406 rate. But she’d have to pay a $200 cancellation fee, which would practically obliterate most of her savings.

“She was sympathetic but she said that only corporate has any discretion to adjust the fare or waive the $200 change fee,” Piell said. “I am hoping you can do something to correct this situation.

I’m sympathetic to Piell. This sure looks like a scam from her perspective. I don’t think you need to know or appreciate the economics behind this kind of nonsense pricing — it just plain doesn’t make sense to the average consumer.

I would be more than happy to tilt against this enormous, illogical windmill. But even if I’m successful at getting American to reverse course, it would make no difference to the hundreds of thousands of other customers who played the fare game and lost.

I think this kind of pricing should be illegal, but it isn’t. I think maybe instead of fighting for Piell, I should join forces with people like her and petition the government to stop this pricing, which feels as if it’s somewhere between profiteering and price gouging.

Then again, maybe I’m overreacting. Airline insiders (I won’t call them apologists today) will tell me this is the free market at its best, and that instead of going to war for Piell, I should advise her how to manipulate the system to get a cheaper fare.

But honestly, this kind of pricing gives capitalism a bad name, and while I might be able to help her outwit the system, it’s still going to trick countless other people. There has to be a better way.

Should I take Hilda Piell's case?

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34 thoughts on “Is this a completely lost cause?

  1. There was one seat left at the lowest price indicated – that day. Many things influence the price of a ticket. In this case it could have been a group that was scheduled to fly cancelled so the AA computer system opened up a lower fare for those seats in order to fill them. Or another airline could have placed seats on sale and AA chose to match that price. While it sucks to be the one stuck with the higher price tickets, it is a fact of dealing with airlines that sometimes this happens.

    It is mentioned that the fare was more than the OP wanted to pay anyway, so why then book it in the first place? Maybe she should have looked at other airlines.

    1. Consider why AA provided that information, that only one seat remained at that price. It was to create the impression that once that seat was purchased, all subsequent purchases would be at a higher price. What other reason could there be for AA’s decision to promote the fact that only one seat remained at that price, other than to inspire spur-of-the-moment purchases? If AA wanted to be honest with passengers, it would add an additional sentence, “Fares purchased tomorrow may be higher or lower than this fare,” or something to the effect that the passenger could (though not necessarily) get a lower fare by waiting and not purchasing then-and-there. Clearly, AA does not want to be honest.

      1. Yes, AA, is indeed trying to create a sense of urgency here. But that’s not deceptive, in addition to being probably the oldest sales technique in the proverbial book. I’m pretty sure some enterprising caveman tried to trade for some meat by warning some hunter: “Hey Ogg! I only have three Pointy Rocks left! If you don’t give me some mammoth meat in return for some expertly-chipped rocks, Ugg will probably snap them up instead!”

        This is no different from BillyBob’s Thing Emporium putting the WhatChaMaCallIt 2000 on a $199 “Three Days Only!” sale, and then two months later, dumping it for $150 when it goes on clearance.

      2. Because at times people are looking at booking several seats – this clearly shows them that it is not an option, or that you may need to book separate reservations – at different rates

  2. This is like a place that advertises that they’re open 24 hours, but when you’re get to the place they’re closed…Oh yeah, they’re not open 24 hours in a row…very deceptive, and very wrong…most of us are not savvy travelers, and actually believe what they read as bible…

  3. This is not deceptive. Had she checked on the day she purchased the ticket, she likely would have discovered that the price went up immediately after her purchase. (If it DID immediately go down, that would absolutely be a case, but this other purchase was days later.)

    This is no different from a store putting an item on sale, you buying it because it’s the last day of the sale, and then two months later it goes on clearance.

    I don’t see how announcing the end of a sale binds the seller in perpetuity to never drop the price below that amount.

    Also, look at it this way; if they HADN’T warned her, would she be writing in about how she saw a good price, didn’t book, and an hour later the price went up, and could she pretty-please have the old price?

    That said, Southwest does have a nice policy here, where you can at least score an airfare credit when this happens. They are the only airline I’m aware of that will do this.

    1. Perhaps she should have placed the reservation on “Hold”. That would give her twenty-four hours to watch and see if the fare went lower.

    2. FYI, Alaska are offers a low price guarantee in two versions, one for finding a lower price on another site can result in a refund of the difference, or if you find a lower price at you can get a credit for future flights. It can/does pay to check out each airline site fully

      1. Good point. When I was a MVP Gold on Alaska, I could change reservations without a change fee and take advantage of lower fares if I saw them later. I heard Executive Platinums on AA had the same ability.

        1. ahh, the nice thing about the Alaska low price guarantee is that you do not need to be an MVP with them, you get either a credit or a refund when you find the published lower price and fill out the form. Since you are not changing a ticket nor purchasing a new one, there are no change fees. But, yes, being able to cancel and book new flights without a change fee is a very nice benefit in that program!

    3. Why does one’s feeling of “getting a great deal” necessarily have to diminish when someone else gets a “better” deal. If your deal was a great deal when you acquired it, leave well enough alone. Whatever deal anyone else was able to get is completely irrelevant to your situation.

  4. She did not use the AA 24 hour hold trick since someone keeps on writing how deceptive it is. Too bad she believed. If she used hold, thus would not have happened.

    1. Except in this case it was DAYS later the lower price was available, not within 24 hours. Using the hold would have not done any good.

          1. Sure. I would actually do this strategy for myself. It is not considered churning since you are well within you rights to make 24 hour holds which includes a FARE HOLD!
            A travel agent can only get you confirmed space but cannot hold a fare. AA can hold the fare for you! So if you use the AA space and fare hold trick, you can win big!

          2. Using any “trick” 1) should not be necessary and means 2) your hands aren’t clean if there’s a problem.

          3. What do you mean? You do not like the word “trick”?
            Then please change it to “option” to be more PC if you want.

  5. I rarely side with the airlines, but I think any shopper has pricing in operation everywhere, with a higher price one day and a sale price another. When you decide to make the purchase, you have to be sure that the price reflects at least the value to you, because unless you are a “price warrior”, someone is going to pay less than you, whether for a car, an airline seat, or a banana.

  6. Seems like a scam if they said only one seat left at the lowest fare, when that wasn’t the case, without some kind of disclaimer saying cheaper seats may be available at a later date/time.

    1. no – it WAS true at the time — but prices change all the time, based on a multitude of reasons — someone may have held 6 seats and then released them, opening up the lower fare – it could have been a sale – not a deception, just not a savvy shopper

      1. If I’m reading the article correctly, it looks like Mr. Elliott is suggesting that consumer be given a price guarantee of SEVERAL days (maybe forever). Can you imagine the chaos that could do to air, cruise, room or rental car rates?
        Savvy shoppers are not born savvy. They read, study and hone their skills.

        That is why they often come up ahead of the rest.

        1. Or they [the consumers] write to blog owners whose readers take the time to do the legwork that they had no desire/time/whatever to do for themselves.

          1. At a minimum, even the most amateur fare shopper should at least read fare history for their city pair.
            If they own a smartphone, the can load the hopper app which will watch the fares for them.
            They need to stop complaining and do something more constructive to help themselves.

          2. I agree with you, but unfortunately even those who have the “savvy” in many cases simply don’t “bother” to help educate themselves. But they sure have time to complain when they think they have been wronged [not saying that in many cases people do everything they can and still get the short end of the stick].

      2. And, had she purchased the ticket through a “travel agent” what recourse would she have had? Would the “travel agent” have been able to do anything more than the customer doing it herself and placing the reservation on “hold” for up to 24 hours?

  7. “Nonsense pricing” OMG, Chris. You just questioned the bedrock of civilization, or the philosophical underpinnings of many of your commenters–I guess that is kind of the same thing.

  8. “Although it was more money than I wanted to spend, I felt compelled to purchase the seat for fear that the seat would be purchased by someone else and the cheapest fare would be gone,” she says.

    The price: $625.

    “Imagine my surprise — and my husband’s unpleasant reaction — when a friend booked the exact same flights today for $406,” she says. “I couldn’t understand how this could possibly be the case.”

    Gently: “An educated consumer is our best customer.” – Sy Syms
    Starkly: “Caveat emptor”

    While not perfect, sites like use analytics to help a customer understand if prices are likely to go up or down in the near future.

  9. Earlier this year, I booked 2 flights on JetBlue, and a week later it came down $60 each. I called, and nicely asked if there was anything they could do, and much to my surprise, they gave us the money as credit towards our next flight with them!

  10. AA has a pricing algorithm in its computer. I am sure that the goal is to sell as many seats as possible and maximize average payment per seat. They have enough data to predict expected sales for a flight on any particular day prior to takeoff. If the sales exceed predicted, demand is ipso facto high, and the price can be raised. Less than predicted? Lower the price to increase demand. I am sure the prediction model is complex, but the results are not.

    As a mechanism to maximize revenue, dynamic pricing is valid. It would not be fair to charge more depending on who is buying, but that is a story for another time.

  11. Lesson: Never, ever look at ticket prices after you’ve bought yours. There will ALWAYS be something cheaper out there. I like to buy my tickets several months ahead of time because I’m compulsive that way. Last time, the airline had a “Flash Sale” about six weeks after I bought the tickets, which would have cut my $1000 fare by 50%. All you can do is grit your teeth and live with your decision.

    1. $500 savings? If I had bought them on the airline website, I would have called them up, taken the $200 change fee and pocketed the difference. If it was on Orbitz, Travelocity, etc, never mind.

  12. And the naive will inherit the internet. Successfully booking airline tickets yourself online takes some research, some attention and some time. Believing the “only 1 seat left” banner is a good way to “pay more than you want to” for a ticket. She should have looked at several airlines and routes over a period of days, at different times of the day. She needed to get a sense of what the fares were, where they were headed and make a decision based on what she was prepared to spend. This eternal quest for the cheapest everything is getting a bit tiresome. It’s been said that you can ask 35 people on an airplane what they paid for their ticket and get 35 answers.

  13. Airfares are a commodity and priced as such. Consumers demanded that. If Piell bought stock at $60/share and it was $50 a few hours later, would you cry “bait-and-switch”, Chris, and declare it should be illegal?

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