Do Websites Intentionally Show You Cheaper Fares They Don’t Have?

Chris Elliott just posted about ghost fares–which are a real thing.

Ghost fares are when flight inventory was purchased, but the cache of the website doesn’t reflect that yet.  Because of that, websites might display prices that are below the cost of what they are able to actually sell you.  It’s frustrating to come across, and happens relatively often (especially when a fare sale is going on).

But Elliott’s thoughts about the ghost fares start veering towards conspiracy theory.

But passengers aren’t just frustrated by a single “ghost” fare. It’s a series of experiences over time that have convinced them — and me — that something is amiss. It’s hard to know exactly what is going on, but one thing is certain: Something is happening behind the scenes.

Are airlines or online agencies misrepresenting the number of tickets left? Consumers have no way of knowing.

And Elliott has no way of knowing either.  His article is based on what could happen and not any research or evidence of what is actually happening.

It reminds me of those TV spots where the advertisements say, “Could your canned tomato juice actually be killing you?” and they show a person on the street saying, “well, you never know what goes in that canned juice–have you actually WATCHED them can it?”  And then the news anchors nod solemnly.

Because look at the way he is carefully-not-actually-accusing-them-but-suggesting-they-might-be-doing-wrong:

Caching makes sense on several levels. The results are faster because the site doesn’t have to go back to query a database. That can also save the site money, since repeated queries can create added expense. But there’s also a potential for mischief, because if a site isn’t required to show a bookable ticket price, it could conceivably show any price.

But the website is required to show a bookable ticket.  Or at least one that was conceivably bookable when the cache pulled in.

But to answer his question, what’s to keep the website from showing any price?

This information that he quoted elsewhere in the article.

Even though technically that’s bait-and-switch behavior, government regulators let them do it because of the technological limitations of the reservations systems. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said an airline would have to “systematically and intentionally” use caching as a method of luring consumers to its website or increasing the price paid by individual consumers in order to fall afoul of its full-fare advertising rule.

His argument is also grounded in this phrase he keeps using, “if a site isn’t required to show a bookable ticket price,” which is misleading.  He suggests that airlines are allowed to show any price.  They aren’t.  And the quote above shows they aren’t.  They are allowed to show prices that to the best of their data is or was recently available.

airplane pretty background

So what are ghost fares then?

Websites cache pricing data.  What this means is, every so often, it pulls in new pricing data about all the bookable fares.  That’s a lot of information to be pulling in, so the data refreshes every so often rather than in real time.

The reason for this is because of the amount of that information.  It would put a huge strain on the resources on both the airlines (who are sending out the pricing information) and the retailers (who are selling it).  At this moment in technological time, storing and showing all that information would raise the cost of displaying these fares.

Think of it this way.  If this post refreshed in real-time just in case I went through it to fix my typos, that would get pretty annoying.  What you are reading right now is a cached version of this post.  There may be a more accurate, less typo-ed version out there, so what you are reading may not be as accurate as the current version.  But it makes sense to do it this way.  It would be maddening to try to read the most accurate and up-to-date version at all times.

This is sorta how the systems work.  It can’t constantly check every single fare at all times.  It would be a maddening amount of information.  So it shows you the fare most likely to be true.  (And in fact, a couple of times, I’ve gotten a “This fare is no longer available” notice and had it reprice to a lower fare.)

Is it frustrating that this happens sometimes?  Of course.  But to suggest this is a conspiracy also suggests that complicated algorithms were built just to lie about prices occasionally.  It would be illegal and a complicated system to keep up.  Which would require a lot of coders, and a lot of potential whistle blowers.

But all his article has is a bunch of assertions and scare tactics.  I wouldn’t trust an article that says, “How do you KNOW you aren’t being cheated?”  I trust an article that says, “You are being cheated and these are the three ways you are.  1.  … etc. etc.”

A “consumer advocate” should do better by his consumers.

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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One comment

  1. The article in itself is interesting. Based on a lot of suppositions indeed.

    My own experiences have been to expect paying more. For anything. Air line rewards being in a class of their own. Certain carriers are the worst offenders for this kind of thing.

    Ticket prices and / or mileage requirements are all based around occupancy ratios. I don’t who started using these booking programmes first. The airline or hospitality industry. They get tweaked continuously.

    On the other hand we’ve also benefited from low cost tickets or mileage levels. By planning ahead of time without changing our plans.

    The basic premise here is like any consumer marketplace. Buyer Beware and Always Compare !

    Thanks for posting the story.

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