Features - The Fare Is Not Always Law: A Guide to Researching Airline Ticket Prices

Stephen Young is a reference librarian at The Catholic University of America, Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library. His research interests are primarily in the area of United Kingdom law.


This article will begin with an overview of the airline ticket industry and a description of the types of tickets available to the consumer. If you wish to view the listing of online resources for airline tickets and would like to skip this section please click here, however an understanding of how best to obtain a lower priced ticket can be achieved by reading the article in its entirety.

Introduction

Air travel is a fact of life for many of us in the profession. Whether it is once a year for an annual conference, or more than once a week to supervise satellite libraries in different cities, the need for air travel is almost unavoidable. Equally, the need to search for the cheapest ticket is also a fact of life for many law librarians. Although some institutions require that employees use a centralized travel service, many law librarians are left on their own in their search for airline tickets with just a vague promise that they will be reimbursed up to a certain amount. Even those who know that whatever amount they end up paying will be covered by their employer still feel obligated to locate the cheapest ticket available. This past year the American Association of Law Libraries conference was held in Minneapolis, the CALI conference was held in Boston, the International Association of Law Libraries conference was in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians was in Cork, Ireland. Although very few of us were able to attend all of these events, they do serve to highlight the extent to which today’s professional law librarian can be expected to travel, and the extent to which they need to understand the complexities of ticket prices.

This guide will attempt to provide a sample of some of the many resources that are now available to the individual searching for cheap air tickets. A parallel with legal research can easily be drawn when one considers that there is no single resource that should be considered “the best” when researching ticket prices. There will be times when one resource may appear to have better prices than another, but this may change in a matter of hours or even minutes. It is always worth checking a number of resources before making the final purchase. While it is true that many of the “fare bots” on the Internet are accessing the same reservation systems, there are differences in the ways that the search engines locate the fares and also how frequently the sites are updated. The airline industry can be extremely confusing for those not familiar with the jargon. I therefore recommend consulting TravelSelect or About.com’s glossary of air travel terms for any phrases or terms that are not fully explained in this article.

The Industry

Few industries have been impacted more than the travel industry by the development of the Internet. Prior to the early 1990’s few people had access to the Computerized Reservation Systems (CRS) housing the airfares for the major domestic and international carriers. Although systems such as Sabre existed for many years, traditionally they were accessed almost exclusively by travel agents and other travel professionals. Consumers relied on three resources for airfares, travel agents, the airlines, and discounters (consolidators and bucket shops). However it would be incorrect to assume that today’s plethora of publicly available websites accessing these reservation systems is any guarantee of low prices. It is still often possible to obtain lower fares by purchasing through a travel agent rather than purchasing online. In law library terms it is akin to a patron asking a librarian to assist them with finding a resource rather than sitting down in front of Lexis or Westlaw and hoping to find exactly what they want on his or her own. In October, 2000 the Consumer Reports Travel Letter concluded that consumers were no more likely to locate cheap airline tickets online than if they were to pick up the telephone and call a travel agent. Furthermore, Consumer Reports reported that favoritism does exist in the industry, and hinted that websites may be heavily biased toward parent or affiliated airlines.

The specter of anti-competitive practices by the airlines started to overshadow the industry in 2000 with the introduction of Orbitz, the Internet travel site jointly owned by United, American, Delta, Northwest and Continental Airlines (together comprising almost 80% of all domestic flights). So great was the fear that this airline controlled site would offer preferential treatment to its flights and its special fares that the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing in July, 2000 to investigate the practices of Orbitz (at that time also known by the term “T-2”). The Committee asked that the Department of Justice review some of the industry practices, particularly in light of the creation of Orbitz. The Department of Justice is expected to announce its findings shortly.

History of the CRS

Today there are four major airline reservation systems: Sabre, Worldspan, Galileo (which owns Apollo), and Amadeus, formerly known as SystemOne. All of these systems were originally part of the airlines' internal information technology departments: Sabre was part of American Airlines, Apollo was part of United, Worldspan started as TWA's PARS reservation system in 1971, and Amadeus started as a joint effort of several European airlines in the 1980s. The airlines profited from these systems by signing up other airlines to use their systems and charging them a fee for this service. However, the systems inevitably reflected a bias toward the parent airlines, often listing their own flights before competitors’ flights. By the 1980’s the situation had become some chronic that the Civil Aeronautics Board (now under the auspices of the Department of Transportation) stepped in to regulate the CRSs (14 CFR § 255). However, even after the CAB/DOT’s efforts there were still subtle biases in the CRSs (e.g., a system would list certain hub airports first, or list by type of equipment and thus favor airlines using those airports or those types of planes) so the companies were forced to include “parity provisions” in their contracts with participating carriers.

Today the four main airline controlled CRSs are the engines running practically all of the online airfare web sites. Sites such as Travelocity and Expedia have added different user interfaces and use slightly different methods to retrieve their results but the “man behind the curtain” is still one of the four CRSs. Since the DOT regulations prohibiting biases apply only to the airline controlled CRSs and not the online travel agents’ websites the inherent biases in the systems are free to surface on the agency web sites.

Domestic vs. International

Before launching into a discussion of airline ticket prices it is essential to understand that there are huge differences in the industry between domestic tickets, defined as travel within the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, and international tickets. A resource that locates attractive prices for domestic flights may not prove to be as successful in locating good prices for international flights. The reasons for the differences are varied, however one of the primary factors is the deregulation of the domestic airline industry and the continued regulation of the international industry. The Airline Deregulation Act 1984 (PL 95-504) eliminated government regulation of domestic routes and schedules for passenger flights (air cargo was deregulated almost 7 years earlier in 1977), and removed governmental control over the rates charged passengers by the airlines. A recent GAO study (Airline Deregulation; Changes in Airfares, Service Quality, and Barriers to Entry) indicates that the effect of deregulation on airfares has generally been positive for the consumer, and it credits competition among the airlines as being the principle cause of keeping ticket prices at a reasonable level.

The world of international airfares is regulated by ‘voluntary’ membership in the International Air Transportation Association (IATA). In addition, international treaties (e.g., International Air Services Transit Agreement, December 7, 1944, 59 Stat. 1693, 84 U.N.T.S. 389) and domestic statutes (e.g., 49 USC 41501) play an important role in the regulation of the industry. All of these serve to keep published international fares artificially high by preventing the airlines from establishing their own fares. One must  also remember that in many countries the national government has a fiduciary relationship with the principal airline (e.g. 97% of Malev Airlines is owned by the Hungarian government), and therefore the government wants to make sure that the company’s profits remain high by agreeing to control international airfares by treaties. The airlines are not allowed to officially discount their fares, they can only pass along discounts in the form of rebates to travel agents who in turn can pass them along to the consumer. Since the discount is in the hands of the travel agent the chances that these agents are able to assist the consumer in locating a lower price for a ticket are far higher than if one were to access a travel website owned by the airlines. Ironically therefore, the exclusion of a middleman (i.e., the travel agent) often increases the cost of an international ticket.

Passengers may also hear agents and/or airlines differentiate between “short-haul” and “long-haul” flights. These terms only refer to the length of the flight and not whether it is classed as domestic or international. As such, the terms are meaningless in determining the price of a ticket. Although there is no standard definition of short or long-haul flights, the most common measurement used to differentiate between the two is 6 hours. Flights shorter than 6 hours are usually considered short-haul, those longer than 6 hours are considered long-haul (due to their length these will often be international flights).

Service and Fare Classifications

A subtle but important distinction in the airline industry is drawn between the terms “airfare” and “price.” Airfares, or fares, are the published rates at which tickets are made available to the public by the airline. Ticket “price” is a broader term that applies to published and unpublished rates (including discounts). These prices are sometimes referred to as “off tariff” prices.

There are three major classes of service in air travel, First, Business and Economy (often designated as “coach” or “cabin” on the ticket). However within each class of service there are various classes of fares offered by the airlines. For example, economy class fares on a particular flight may be designated by a range of alphabetical codes (Y, B, H, K, M etc), each one helping to determine the exact price of the fare, and each one carrying with it different levels of restrictions. This class code is usually found on the ticket under the heading “CL.” Within these fare classes there are even subclasses of fares (designated by two, three or possibly more letter codes). Not surprisingly, the airlines operate on a system of tradeoffs; the more flexible the passenger wants to be the more they have to pay for their ticket. If a passenger can lock himself or herself into a particular flight more than 21 days prior to departure they will usually be rewarded with the lowest published fare available.

Among the more popular types of fares offered are APEX Economy class fares. Since these are the fares most likely to provide travelers with the lowest price I will concentrate on this particular category, however it is important to remember that the range of types is one of the reasons why three people sitting next to one another in economy class might have paid three completely different prices for their seats.

Apex fares are advanced purchased excursion fares offered by airlines. Depending on the airline, there are various limitations imposed on these tickets with regards to reservation, ticket issuance, and duration of stay. Passengers must purchase the ticket usually 14-21 days prior to departure to receive this discount. This is the traditional form of economy ticket. Other economy fares, with fewer restrictions, are available but almost always at a higher price. Apex fares are usually nonrefundable, and severe penalties are usually assessed if the passenger needs to make changes to the itinerary after ticketing. However, one should note that in the event that a nonrefundable ticket cannot be used by a passenger they are not left empty handed. The value of an unused nonrefundable ticket can usually be applied toward another nonrefundable ticket after penalties (or change fees) have been assessed.

One type of fare that should be mentioned is the bereavement or compassion fare. This often-misunderstood fare is actually a discounted full coach fare (the discounts vary from 50%-75%) offered to the next of kin when there is a serious illness or death in the family. The airlines will almost always request official documentation before providing the discount. The reality is that these fares are usually still far more expensive than the APEX or nonrefundable coach fares most passengers usually purchase. See Tom Parson’s article on finding the best bereavement fares for more information on this topic.

Discounters

The term discounter is used to describe an agency, either online or offline, that is able to provide tickets at a price lower than the published airline fare.  Discounters are essentially divided into two groups, consolidators and bucket shops.  Consolidators generally provide tickets wholesale to retail agencies.  Although they operate discount agreements with airlines, they rarely pass these savings directly on to the paying passenger.  Bucket shops are loosely defined as retail agencies that operate with a number of consolidators and can assist the paying passenger in realizing some of the consolidator savings.    These are often the agencies that advertise in the back of the travel section of the Sunday New York Times and other major newspapers.  In many instances the bucket shops will specialize in certain markets, e.g., South America or Australasia. Discounters are of limited use to passengers looking for savings on domestic tickets due to the slim margins under which the domestic market operates and the competitive nature of a deregulated industry.  A discounter can be of far more assistance in helping you find a lower unpublished rate to Singapore than to Des Moines.  Edward Hasbrouck, in his FAQ on ticket consolidators and bucket shops, supplies a more complete description of the world of discounters. Although lists of discounters are often quickly made redundant by changes in the industry, the ETN (originally called the European Travel Network) website provides one of the best sources for locating discounters and travel databases.

Frequent Flyer Tickets

It is very tempting to want to “cash in” accumulated miles in lieu of paying for an airline ticket. However, there are times when this is advisable (e.g., when miles may soon be expiring or when fares are high), and there are times when this is inadvisable (e.g., when published fares are low).  In making the decision to use a travel award one must take into account the value of the miles accumulated.  Although it is not an exact formula (no single formula can take account of regional and/or seasonal differences), it is not unrealistic to value each mile at 1.2¢.  Based on this formula, the traditional requirement of 25,000 miles for a domestic airline ticket equates to $300.  If you can purchase the ticket for considerably less than $300 it makes little sense cashing in those miles unless they are expiring.  Always bear in mind that airlines only allocate a small percentage of seats in any one flight to those using travel awards, therefore availability may be the determining factor in whether you get to use your award.

Sometimes the airlines will offer deals that at first glance appear very enticing.  They may allow you to “top off” your miles by adding $100 or $150 to an amount of miles that normally would not qualify for award redemption.  For example, the normal mileage required for domestic travel is 25,000, however the airline may allow the passenger to use 15,000 and top it off by adding $150 to those miles.  However, based on our formula this means that the passenger actually ends up paying the equivalent of $330 for the ticket ($150 in cash and $180 worth of miles).  Once again, the only time this makes good economic sense is if the miles are nearing their expiration date and would otherwise be wasted.

"Internet Only" Fares

Many of us are aware of the fairly recent (i.e., the past few years) concept of “Internet Only” fares. These extremely limited tickets are made available at the last minute by airlines in the hopes of filling up empty seats on certain routes. The limitations vary depending on whether the ticket is for domestic or international travel and which airline is offering the special, but usually require that the passenger travel on the Friday and Monday separated by the weekend. The fares are advertised on the airlines’ websites, and customers can arrange for the listings of fares to be e-mailed to them on a weekly basis. Some travel sites even compile weekly lists of all the available Internet only fares from the various airlines (e.g., Bestfares). This type of ticket is perhaps one of the best examples of the flexibility v. price tradeoff under which the airlines operate; the passenger has very little control over the conditions of travel (departure/arrival dates, class, routes, refunds, etc.) but is rewarded with a relatively cheap fare.

Low Fare Carriers

The creation of a relatively new breed of airlines, the low fare carrier, is a phenomenon that is developing on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States we have seen the impact that Southwest Airlines (the oldest and arguably most successful of the low fare carriers), ATA, Vanguard, Spirit and others have made on the domestic market, an effect that the Department of Transportation has labeled a revolution (see the DOT study on low fare carriers). Specifically, the DOT has identified that the Standard Industry Fare Level (a required standard under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 for measuring the cost of an unrestricted coach ticket in the domestic market) has fallen in markets where the low fare carriers operate. It should be noted that in Europe companies such as EasyJet, RyanAir, and Buzz have had a similar impact on the air travel industry within the European Union.

However one of the problems facing the low fare carriers in the domestic market is the lack of exposure they receive on the CRSs. Over the years Southwest Airlines has fought battles with the CRSs, sometimes arguing that their fares are incorrectly published on these databases, other times arguing that they have been excluded from some of the databases on certain routes. The result is that consumers should check the online booking systems of the individual low fare airlines, and compare those results with the results retrieved from the CRS controlled websites.

The Fine Print

London $159, Brussels $165, Berlin $180. All of us have been drawn to the advertisements screaming out ridiculously low prices to far away, and even not so far away places. We envision paying $159 and being able to board the aircraft for our transatlantic trip. The realities are in the fine print. The prices in the advertisements, whether they are printed by the airlines or retail agencies, are often one-way fares based on round-trip purchase. These fares are also often offered only from certain gateway airports (e.g. JFK, Atlanta, LAX), and will inevitably carry multiple restrictions such as mid-week departure or extremely limited availability. In addition, it is almost guaranteed that the fare does not include taxes, which for international tickets can easily add $100+ to the cost of the ticket, and is also non-refundable. The $159 we envisioned can quickly become $500 by the time we finish the transaction.

Other Cost Saving Tips

These are some of the more common cost saving tips.

  1. Stay over a Saturday night. See #5 below if this cannot be achieved.

  2. Research the “Alternate Airport.” It is sometimes cheaper to use a different airport even if both are in the same city, particularly if one is used by one of the low fare carriers such as Southwest Airlines (e.g. flying into/out of Dallas Love Field v. DFW). Predatory pricing practices by some of the major airlines has benefited customers in the short run by matching the low fares, but has hurt them in the long run when the low fare carrier is driven out of the market. A recent report on predatory pricing prepared for the DOT is available online.

  3. Utilizing advertised companion fares, however these often require the purchase of one full fare economy class ticket and carry with them many other restrictions.

  4. The “Hidden City.” A passenger buys a ticket from city A to city C, however the passenger only intends to travel as far as city B where the plane has a layover. This strategy is definitely not recommended because the airlines are perfectly within their rights to deny the passenger use of the return coupons of the ticket. One should also bear in mind that any luggage will be checked to the city designated on the ticket. This practice should not be confused with the perfectly acceptable practice of purchasing “Open Jaw” tickets. These tickets allow the passenger to arrive in one city and then depart from a different city for the next leg of their journey.

  5. “Back to Backs.” This is another practice that is frowned upon by the airlines, but the likelihood of airline action is far less. This is a particularly useful strategy for frequent fliers who are unable to adhere to the Saturday night stay over rule. The passenger purchases a roundtrip ticket from Washington National (DCA) to Los Angeles (LAX), however they intend to leave on a Monday and return on a Friday. Since they are unable to stay over on the Saturday they purchase another roundtrip ticket but this time in the reverse direction, leaving LAX on a Friday and returning on a Monday. By regularly (it makes little sense to do this on a one time only basis) combining portions of each ticket they can avoid the Saturday stay over rule.

  6. Voluntary bumping. Since most flights are oversold by 20% or more, the likelihood that bumping will occur is fairly high on some routes. The amount that the passenger is compensated for the inconvenience of being bumped is at the sole discretion of the gate agent and is not regulated by the FAA, however it is not unrealistic to expect at least a voucher redeemable for one domestic roundtrip ticket.

Caveat Emptor

Needless to say, some of the sites listed at the end of this article may go out of business, new ones will be added, and old ones enhanced between the time this article is written and the time it is read. One example of the uncertainty of the industry is biztravel.com. A casualty of the recession and the post 9-11-01 slump in the industry, the company was forced out of business in late September 2001. The sites that are listed should not be viewed as a comprehensive list of websites for purchasing tickets. No guide can make that claim. The following sites represent only a selection of some of the more popular and convenient web based resources for locating airfares. The inclusion of a site does not represent an endorsement of that company or any guarantee of low price (for an example of a comparative approach to travel sites check Simplyquick).

Locating the right price for an airline ticket is not unlike performing legal research; check as many resources as possible, make sure your resources are up to date, and be comfortable using both online and offline tools. Please note that the following selections are chosen with the assumption that travel will originate in the United States. If your travel originates outside of the U.S. you might want to consider checking the “Travel” section of the local or regional Yahoo! for sites catering to departures from that part of the world.

Tabular Guide to Ticket Websites

The following chart lists 26 representative travel sites, including travel agents, discounters, airlines, auction sites, and travel clubs. I have supplied actual fares retrieved using three sample searches. NOTE: These fares were retrieved on December 7th , 2001, and it is very likely that they have since changed or are no longer available. These fares are supplied merely as examples of the range of fares available on any particular day, and they do not necessarily indicate that one site will always provide a better result than another. One must also bear in mind that the lowest price may require multiple stops or changes of aircraft, inconvenient flight times, and/or the use of commuter aircraft (i.e., turboprop planes and regional jets).

The three sample trips reflect a mixture of different ticket types, domestic roundtrip, domestic open-jaw, and international roundtrip:

Sample Trip A: This is a simple roundtrip domestic flight from Washington Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) to Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD). Departing on Thursday, February 14th 2002, and returning on Monday, February 18th 2002.

Sample Trip B: This is an example of an open-jaw ticket. Departing from DCA to ORD on 2/14/02, but returning to DCA from Indianapolis International Airport (IND) on 2/18/02. It assumed that the passenger used ground transportation between ORD and IND.

Sample Trip C: This is an international flight from Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) to London Heathrow Airport (LHR). Departing on Thursday, February 14th 2002, and returning on Saturday, February 23rd 2002.

In retrieving the fares for the sample trips I did not accept alternate airports, except in the case of ATA and Southwest flying into Chicago Midway airport (these are examples of low fare carriers). Lower fares could have been retrieved in some of these databases if I had been willing to fly out of Baltimore instead of Washington, or fly into Midway instead of O’Hare, or Gatwick instead of Heathrow. I did allow for the use of commuter aircraft, multiple stops/changes, and inconvenient flight times provided the travel was completed on the dates requested.

In a number of instances I have indicated “N/A” in a column. This indicates that either that particular type of transaction was not available on that database, or the database could not locate available fares for those dates/routes. Please note that most of the sites allow customers to contact the company if they experience problems locating a fare, or if they have complicated routings (e.g. open-jaw tickets). The prices quoted include taxes unless otherwise indicated (remember that taxes on international tickets can be as much as $100 or more) and have been rounded to the nearest dollar. The prices do not include any additional handling, mailing or service charges that the agent might add on to the ticket price (e.g., Orbitz recently added a $5 “service charge” to the cost of tickets). The following table also does not reflect ease of use of the website. Some of the sites, such as Orbitz and Travelocity, are very easy to use and the search results are clearly displayed. Other sites are less clear and sometimes require the user to sift through fares for which there is no longer any availability. All of these factors should be taken into account when reviewing this table.

A Comparative Sampling of Travel Websites. All Searches Performed 12/7/01.

Fares are supplied only as examples of possible search results and may not reflect current availability.

Travel Website Type of Site Sample Trip A Sample Trip B Sample Trip C
Airfare.com Travel Agent $204 $200 $358+Tax
ATA1 Low Fare Carrier $202 $221 N/A
BestFares2 Travel Club $184 N/A N/A
Cheap Seats Discounter $204 N/A $399
Cheaptickets Discounter $166 N/A $403
Continental Airline $185 $206 $384
Council Travel3 Travel Agent $200 $200 $273+Tax
Discountflights Discounter $204 $208 $276+Tax
Expedia Travel Portal $204 $208 $319+Tax
Farebase Discounter $204 N/A $384
Farechase Comparative Site $166 N/A $439
Hotwire4 Auction $110 N/A $365
ITA Discounter $204 $200 N/A
ITN Travel Portal $204 N/A $415
LowestFare Discounter $214 210 426
OneTravel Discounter $204 $208 $321
Orbitz Travel Portal $185 $182 $384
Priceline5 Auction See Note 5 See Note 5 See Note 5
Qixo6 Comparative Site $172 N/A6 $384
Sidestep Comparative Software $185 N/A $321
Southwest7 Low Fare Carrier $168 N/A N/A
The Trip Travel Portal $204 N/A $416
TISS Discounter N/A N/A $400
Travelocity Travel Portal $204 $210 $416
Uniglobe Travel Agent $204 $381 $416
United Airline $195 $208 $392
  1. ATA does not fly to ORD.  The prices indicated are for flights into Chicago Midway (MDW).

  2. Bestfares is a travel club requiring membership fees of $59.90 per year to join.  The fare indicated is the non-member fares listed on their site.  The member fare was $165 for sample trip A.

  3. Council Travel specializes in fares for students and "teachers" (including librarians).  In order to receive the discounted educational rate one must first purchase an International Teacher Identity Card (see the ISTC website for more information).

  4. Hotwire does not display the name of the carrier, the number of connections, or the flight times until the customer purchases the tickets.

  5. This site requires the customer select the price of the ticket.  Priceline either accepts or rejects the customer’s price.  Since I could not submit a price without committing to buy a ticket I did not run the three sample searches in this database.

  6. Qixo does allow open-jaw flights, but they must be submitted to a representative in order for them to provide a quote.

  7. Southwest Airlines uses Baltimore Washington International (BWI) and MDW instead of DCA and ORD.

Conclusion

ConclusionLaw librarians should approach the search for low priced airline tickets in the same manner that they might approach any other research question.  Although it is tempting to automatically default to Orbitz or Travelocity, just as one might automatically default to Westlaw or LexisNexis in legal research, it is important to realize that these are just two of the many weapons available in the research arsenal.

ConclusionThe key distinction I have tried to make in this article is that the resources utilized for locating domestic tickets are often different from the resources used for international tickets.  The ability to find discounts in the domestic market is certainly far more restrictive than in the international market, however if the consumer is willing to shop around the discounts can be found.  The CRSs that control the online ticketing industry ultimately mean that the consumer’s choice will always be limited, however the assistance of a retail agent, just like the assistance of a law librarian, can be invaluable in securing an airline ticket at the lowest price available.

ConclusionIn 2002, law librarians will be searching for airline tickets to Orlando (AALL), Chicago (CALI), Liverpool (BIALL), and many other domestic and international destinations.  Hopefully this guide will provide some assistance to those who need to research their own ticket prices.  The old saying that the law is not always fair can be adapted for our purposes; the published fare is not always the law when it comes to selecting a cheap airline ticket.