Friday, April 27, 2007

Travelling Violation

No wonder half of the airlines are in bankruptcy. What a screwed up, confusing and counterintuitive industry. I just got finished booking a flight back home to Connecticut for my grandfather's funeral. I ended up getting a flight when I want, and for a good price, so I'm not going to bitch about the results, but the process?...

I usually start on Orbitz and see what ballpark I'm in, what's available, etc. Shockingly, there are some cheap flights available ($200-$250 incl fees), if I make a stop. That's fine with me, I'm travelling alone. I don't see flights from Northwest (and I live near the hub, Detroit) so I go over there to check. My wife informs me we have a voucher with them, so book it if it's close. I also plan to inquire about bereavement rates. The flights at nwa.com are a whopping $645. Sure they're direct, but the times suck too. Have to call for bereavement price...$479. Thanks, but no thanks.

Best flights/prices at Orbitz were on fresh-from-bankruptcy United Airlines. Go to United site...same flights are five bucks cheaper at $229. Lesson? Find your flight on Orbitz, but don't book with them. Call United to inquire about bereavement rate now that I have flight info. "The bereavement fare for that intinerary will be $359, would you like me to make that reservation for you?" Um, no thanks.

Why on earth would the bereavement "discount" be an extra $130? I wish I was quick enough on my feet to have asked when I was on the phone.

So in summation: Prices range by order of magnitude. Some fares must make a killing for the airlines while on others they take a bath. I fully expected to see flights in excess of $800-900 when I first punched stuff in at Orbitz. And while I appreciate it, there is no way you can sustain an airline by offering last-minute, one-night-stay fares for under $200 (which my flight was without the fees).

The problem is this, nobody likes to feel like they are getting screwed. When you go to book a flight, that is always in the back of your mind. Always. It's worse than buying a car. You are at the mercy of the airlines and the results are entirely and utterly unpredictable. Booking one day earlier or later might double or halve your price...

So, as I said, I got what I wanted, and got a great deal. But, I think my experience perfectly illustrates many of the flaws of the airline business model.

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Yes, I am aware that using this forum to bitch about airlines is my way to avoid grieving...

4 comments:

Mike said...

Sorry about your Grandfather, Furious.

Unfortunately, airlines' offers rarely include condolences.

Mr Furious said...

He had a good run—he was 95. I'm more sad about my grandmother who will now be without her partner after 60-odd years of marriage...

S.W. Anderson said...

I'm sorry you and your loved ones suffered this loss, Mr. F.

Two factors probably made the bereavement rate higher than your bargain fare.

First, it's probably based on a standardized discount from whatever the full coach rate was for however far in advance you made your inquiry. Second, that discount might be less generous than you'd expect because they figure you're sure to go, making the situation more a seller's market.

Bargain fares reflect the airlines' desire to not fly empty seats. I'm sure they have computerized calculations based on recent flights and trends that give them a good idea what the odds of a particular number of seats on a particular flight will be. The higher the likelihood a bunch of seats will remain empty, the greater the discount they will offer, especially if time is getting short.

Even if some seats are filled at cost or below, filling planes is important. They help justify terminal slots, aircraft leases and purchases, and give the airlines something positive to show stockholders. As in, "Year over year, we're booking 12 percent more seats!"

Mr Furious said...

Yeah, I figured my flights were already coming at a deep discount, and that the bereavement rate was based on full-fare—still weird to be told my discount is actually a premium...and the guy on the phone had NO appreciation for that irony at all.

As to the empty seats, I've long understood that as well, but here's what's funny... My trip consisted of four distinct flights: Two on 737s that were overbooked when I bought my seats one that was so empty that everybody on the plane had the whole row to themselves (I love when that happens) and one full flight on a much smaller United Express plane.