Delta Screws Up, Accidentally Shows Different Prices to Some Customers on Its Website

Everyone makes mistakes, but some mistakes are worse than others. Delta had one fall into the “pretty bad” category recently when it decided to try out some new search functionality on its website. In some cases, those who were logged in ended up getting different prices than those who weren’t. That’s not good. Fortunately, it’s been fixed.

Delta Price Discrimination

The story seems to have been uncovered when a couple of business partners tried to book side by side. They each got different prices despite doing the same search. So what happened?

According to Delta spokesperson Paul Skrbec, the airline “updated our search function as part of a phased approach to improve the site.” The people who were logged in were using the glitchy new search function whereas those who weren’t logged in used the old one. That meant that you would get conflicting results depending upon whether you were logged in or not.

Despite press reports that those who were logged in were charged more than those who weren’t, Delta told me that sometimes the fares were lower, if they were different at all. This went on for somewhere between one and three weeks before Delta reverted to the old technology throughout the site. (It’s unclear to me how long Delta knew there was a problem.)

It’s not necessarily a big problem if Delta wants to try and charge different prices to different people (though charging elites more is pretty stupid because that will encourage elites to not log in when they buy). We can have that conversation another time, because I’m sure a lot of you disagree with me. The big problem in my mind here is if the airline does it without telling people it’s going to happen.

Why is that an issue? Because people aren’t stupid, and it’s way too easy to see through something like that. People would catch on when they compare using different sites or when they book side by side with someone. Long time readers will remember the first and only fire-red-with-anger Cranky Jackass award that I gave US Airways for quietly slipping in booking fees on its own website. That practice is long gone, but it was sneaky because the airlines have spent years drilling into people that they will get the lowest fare on airline websites. If that quietly changes without any sort of notice, then I consider that deceptive.

Fortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing here with Delta. We’re just seeing yet another problem with the Delta website. People already lack trust in the website’s terrible SkyMiles redemption capabilities and this could shake faith in the paid booking process as well, depending upon how big this story gets.

This is definitely a black eye for Delta since a lot of the media reports make it seem like Delta is deliberately trying to charge its frequent fliers more. What does that mean for Delta? It means people will be more likely to search other sites to verify the pricing seen on Delta.com. It also means people may try to book without logging in. Delta shouldn’t like that because it’s always better to be able to tie behavior to a specific user if you can. It helps a smart business better serve that person.

Possibly the most frustrating piece of this whole thing is that some people likely were overcharged and they really wouldn’t have any way to know it. If you do know that you were overcharged for one reason or another, Delta told me that the best way to deal with it is to contact Customer Care. But how would you even know? You probably wouldn’t.

So, conspiracy-theorists, was this really some super-secret attempt to test price discrimination across customer types? I don’t think so. I think it was just a mistake.

That being said, I won’t be surprised if we see an airline try that kind of pricing at some point in the future, but I’m hopeful that when it happens, that airline will be completely up front about it.

[Original photo via Flickr user Hugo90/CC 2.0]

37 Responses to Delta Screws Up, Accidentally Shows Different Prices to Some Customers on Its Website

  1. David says:

    I’m puzzled as to what the big deal of this is. Fundamentally, the sale of an air ticket is a commercial transaction – the vendor offers a price, and the buyer can choose whether or not to take up that price. If the price is too high, the buyer can simply walk away and choose another airline, or choose not to go at all.

    This is not like going into a supermarket, and being charged more than was shown on the price label. The amount charged is exactly what the price label said – it’s just that the price label seems to show different prices to different people.

    Storm in a teacup.

  2. DAB says:

    Actually, the media reports I heard and read made this sound more like incompetence than some kind of conspiracy to suck money out of the elites.

    My problem with Delta is that if I try to book a direct flight from here to SLC (a segment on which I am averaging once a month), they are always a good three hundred or more than all of their competation. If I can pay for the hotel, car, and meals with the fair difference that is a little too much…

  3. Shane says:

    To your point about charging different people different rates, car rental companies do this all the time. Of course there are a lot of bogus discount codes that do nothing (such as the ones you get from various airlines). I have had several times where I received different rates from National depending on whether I am logged in or not. I believe that I got the best price if I was logged but did not provide the promotion code that is inserted by default based on your status.

    • JM says:

      Avis does a version of the same thing– or at least I experienced it.

      I compared rates at Avis.com using my last name and Wizard number without logging in, then I compared rates after logging in.

      Guess what? Two different rates.

      Games, games, games.

      • ancsteve says:

        I always rent through Costco – routinely $100 or more below best price on either Orbitz or the individual car rental websites. Plus, when I use my member number for Alamo, the price is more than through Orbitz, unless I prepay and get a 10% discount. Even still, Costco is cheaper and no hassle at the counter.

      • LPA-F says:

        Avis does indeed vary WILDLY . . and if you change your country of residence to certain locations it gets wayyyyy cheaper . . same car, same dates and in most cases it’s like 1/4 the price and no one-way drop fees ….if you reside outside the US.

  4. I still don’t get how a different search function on the same flights on the same dates (like the original two guys were checking) would give different fares unless DL was actually loading different fares. Weren’t the original two guys seeing this because one was signed in and the other wasn’t.

    • Jason H says:

      It’s relatively easy to end up with a bug in a line of search engine code. The front page of Delta.com was pointing people to different engines so the bug only appeared to those people who had their search branched to the new engine. It should have been caught in QA, but given how lax my company is with our code QA I’m not shocked that something like this slipped through either.

  5. Oliver says:

    I’d like to see a technical explanation from Delta how this happened. Did someone “accidentally” add a condition to the search engine to not offer the lowest fare bucket if the user is logged in?

    • CF says:

      Oliver – I would love to hear a technical explanation as well, but I don’t think we’re going to get it. I don’t know how the logic was working, but maybe they excluded some are bases or it used different search rules. There are a bunch of ways this could happen.

  6. BOS Flyer says:

    Seems that Cranky is living in fantasy land. Of course they were trying to see if they can get away with charging different pricing to different customer groups.

    How would people feel if this happened in the supermarket – I get charged one price, and the guy next to me gets charged a different price for the same product – wouldn’t go over too well, I am sure.

    • Jason H says:

      Don’t forget to grab the tinfoil for the hats! Seriously, a company has a bug in the code and everyone seems to react like it was on purpose. Until you have tried to track down a bug in a order/billing system you have no idea how complex these things get. The company I work for has problems like this a lot. Thankfully our customers are other businesses that understand that bugs happen. Sadly most people seem to think that everything is supposed to be perfect. THAT is a fantasy land.

    • tharanga says:

      The supermarket scenario already exists. One price for loyalty card holders, and another price for others. With personally-tailored coupons being printed out afterwards, to differentiate between different cardholders.

  7. Paul says:

    You see a version of this in the lodging industry. Often the “convention” or “conference” rate at a hotel will be higher than the lowest publicly available rate. This is because the hotel will have a contract with the event promoter to rebate a portion of the room rates booked by conference attendees. This allows the promoter to charge a lower registration fee while still collecting enough revenue to cover event expenses. This is done because companies (and individuals) often budget separately for accommodation and registration fees. In effect, someone who books their lodging directly with the hotel without a conference or promo code, can be paying “less” for the conference than someone who books a package that includes accommodation and registration fees because their accommodation is not marked up to cover the cost of the rebate. Of course, this potential savings disappears if you wait to long to book as supply and demand will push prices up as hotel occupancy increases.

  8. SEAN says:

    Now I understand what their slogan refers to. Delta, keep climbing. It’s their ticket prices. After all where will the money come from to add 100 flights at LGA.

  9. Thank god I’m not losing my mind! Over the last year or so, I thought I’d noticed that sometimes my “special” Delta fares were actually higher than what I could find on Expedia or Orbitz. Never a whole lot — maybe $50 or so — but I thought it was a little strange.

    The benefit of being able to work with Delta directly when things went wrong (sad to say, it happens far too often) overrides paying a bit more. So I go ahead and book with them. But much more than $50 and I’ll probably just bite the bullet and take the discount.

    • CF says:

      Dick Carlson – You might still be losing your mind! This was an isolated issue that lasted for only three weeks. If you were logged in at that time, it’s possible that you saw a lower rate there than you did on the online travel agent sites. But if it’s been over the last year, then that shouldn’t have been happening.

  10. Gary says:

    I want to know where the “salesman” in the picture can get you a ticket to Savannah for $99?! Have you priced travel to that destination lately? People, I’m not going to Europe or Tokyo. It’s Savannah, for crying out loud.

  11. Paul says:

    Peter Greeenberg recently reported that airlines only release certain allocations to websites , and actually suggested one call them for the lowest price.
    Is this true?
    Isn’t the ITA website the best place to check fares accross all carriers – except WN?

    • CF says:

      Paul – I can’t say I’m surprised to hear some bad advice coming out of Peter Greenberg here. The big US airlines are contractually obligated to provide the lowest fares to the online travel agents. (They traded that to them in exchange for fee reductions over the last decade.) So in general, you will see the same thing regardless of where you book.

      There are two airlines that I have seen as notable exceptions of the rule. One is Air New Zealand and the other is Hawaiian, both of which charge less on their own websites.

  12. Sean S. says:

    The question is how/why would you want to price discriminate outside of some sort of recognized bonus for elites? For the most part the fare system already has price discrimination built in due to the variety of fare classes, and the variety of flexibility or service upgrades that you can get. There doesn’t seem to be any other real reason to price discriminate that serves any legitimate end. If you want to make more money per ticket, you’re just going to raise prices across the board.

    • CF says:

      Sean S – In an ideal world, the goal of revenue management is to get every person on that plane paying the maximum price he or she is willing to pay. So if you have 100 seats, you want to find the 100 people who want to pay the most for that flight and then get them to pay as much as possible. In the beginning, fences like advance purchase were created to help segment the market, but we’re nowhere near getting revenue maximized. It will never get there either, but that’s always the goal.

      • DAB says:

        Ok, that statement about “revenue management” is the problem with the airlines right there. I wonder what would happen if they actually concentrated on providing a quality product at a fair price and got the game theory out of their business…

        • BW says:

          You shouldn’t be living in a capitalist society.

          • Sean says:

            I’m not sure if thats snark or not but there are serious downsides to attempting to weasel money out individually of every single person namely that people will just get so frustrated with the process that they won’t ever return to buy from you again.

  13. JayB says:

    Mr. Conspiracy-Theorist here: “Why was my fare so high here? Looks like a cheaper fare over there.”

    My friendly airline: “Trust me. We gave you the lowest fare. But, feel free to try and prove us wrong. But, really, you’re lucky you got such a low fare, don’t you think.”

    Having been born very early in life, back when we had those marvelous things only a dork like myself could love, tariffs they called them, price lists, every market, and when used in conjunction with rules tariffs, and routing tariffs, you could verify that you got the lowest fare. You could see, in black and white, first in paper, then on the computer, every fare the airline published. It didn’t come and go every milli-second. You were entitled to the lowest fare for which you qualified, and discrimination was verboten.

    Then came deregulation, not a terribly bad thing, mind you, but it became permissible to sell tickets on a “capacity-controlled” basis, or what I call, whatever damn well I, the airline, say the fare is.

    That $105 one-way, plus fees and taxes, GAG7KS, UA fare from BWI to LAS, on that particular set of flights, Monday, June 4, may or may not be the lowest fare we have, but it is the one we’re hinting is the lowest for that travel. Only 6 tickets, left!

    Is there a lower fare? Who knows. We don’t need to tell you, nor do we want to waste our time explaining every fare we may or may not offer in that market.

    And why doesn’t it show up for the OK day of week travel, and non-blackout days the 9 computer screens of fare rules show? Please, this is the way we price seats in this industry. Who’s going to make us change?

  14. Thor says:

    I’ve been a frequent flyer (1.7+ million miles)with Northwest / Delta.

    Since the merger, this has been an issue.

    Agent’s (even the very kind elite people) don’t have a clue, online customer service “makes a note of it”. It has become a habit to continually checked a Orbits/Travelocity, Delta logged in and Delta not logged in. My efforts have saved thousands $$$ each year. One flight to Asia was over $1200 different.

    Layer on top of this upgrade/elite benefits and now you are into serious frequent flyer work.

    Watch this turn into a major class action law suit IF Delta admits or proof is found they knew of the issue.

    Personally, I think it’s false advertising and illegal. But, buyer be ware!

  15. Sanjeev M says:

    They’ll fix this hopefully soon, as this is even worse than the horrendous Skymiles redemption site.

  16. Carl says:

    I am skeptical of Delta’s explanation. The airlines are trying to price differentiate among their customers, and when you are logged in to your frequent flier number, the airlines know a lot about you. They may know you are going to get free bags and lounge access, so maybe you will pay a bit more to stay on the airline. Isn’t the same thing also happening with upgrade for cash offers, not just on Delta but also on United?

    There are clearly ethical issues involved here, and the airlines are going to have to come up with an explanation, or they will lose a lot of trust with their loyal customers.

  17. Hello there. I?m Paul Skrbec and a spokesperson for Delta. At no time did delta.com sell the same flight itinerary to different people for different prices. Delta?s fares are consistent in all channels. We encourage readers to take a look at Bob Kupbens blog post in which he goes into more detail on this issue: http://blog.delta.com/2012/05/18/fare-displays-on-delta-com/

    • Larry says:

      That is not true. I am currently trying to book a flight to sju from fnt. Thepriceis $50.00 more on the delta site then orbitz. I guess I will but on orbitz and use my skymiles number to get free package on the delta site. This makes no sense.

  18. DYKWIA says:

    The comment: “We?re just seeing yet another problem with the Delta website. People already lack trust in the website?s terrible SkyMiles redemption capabilities and this could shake faith in the paid booking process as well…” is an understatement. How is Bob Kupbens and his team being allowed to drag so slowly on REAL improvements to delta.com (aka delta.dumb)? This is another example.

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