Why is Delta Hiding Lower Fares On Its Website? (Ask Cranky)

It’s time for another Ask Cranky, and this one can serve as a warning to anyone who is price-sensitive. You might want to rethink using Delta.com if you’re willing to take a more roundabout routing to get a lower fare. I’ve slightly altered the original email for clarity. Here’s the gist of it.

Hi Brett,

I am finding the more Delta alters its website and search functionality, the more it appears to remove lower fare options that usually involve longer, abnormal connections. In short, I’m finding myself booking more [Delta] travel on Expedia or an affiliate site because delta.com won’t list the routing. And, as you know, if you try to price segment by segment on [Delta’s] website, you’ll end up with something astronomical.

Here’s my latest example:

Sunday, March 25
[Phoenix to Anchorage] one-way

[Delta] directly will sell me a $275 one-way with a double connection. Using Google Flights, I see [Delta] publishes (but does not list on its website) $221 [Phoenix-Minneapolis/St Paul-Anchorage]. And the [Minneapolis/St Paul] connection is 45 minutes! It’s nowhere to be found on Delta.com. And the fare is standard coach – not Spirit-class.

As I wrote at the top, I’ve been finding myself booking this way more and more. And maybe the bigger issue, I no longer just go to Delta’s website and merrily book away – I am always cross checking another source. I recently found Expedia cheaper for a [Tucson-Austin] one-way where [Atlanta] wasn’t listed on Delta’s site but was on Expedia for $150 cheaper (granted, it’s a longer connection but I pay my own way).

This seems to fit the pattern for the Hauenstein-run Delta machine. As little transparency as possible, blasted with the idea that everything via Delta is the best deal.

Best,
Raj

To tackle this one, I had to start by seeing it for myself. We’re well past the original date of travel now, but I looked right when the email came in and I snagged some screenshots. Surely enough, this came up as the lowest fare on Delta.com.

When I checked in Sabre, the system we use to book at Cranky Concierge (and it was available on other websites), I did see what Raj was talking about.

So why is Delta hiding the routing with the lowest fare? Is this some nefarious plot to force travelers to pay more if they’re stupid enough to only use Delta.com and not comparison shop? I asked Delta for comment, and my guess was confirmed. This is a circuity issue, and while I think Delta needs to fix it, it doesn’t sound like the airline feels the same way.

You probably don’t need a map to know that flying from Phoenix to Anchorage via Minneapolis goes far off the most direct routing. Nonstop it’s about 2,500 miles from Phoenix to Anchorage, but going via Minneapolis is over 3,700 miles, just about 50 percent longer in terms of mileage. For those with a visual bent, here’s a map from the Great Circle Mapper.

Sometimes airlines don’t like people finding deals on these out-of-the-way routings, so they block low fares from pricing via routing rules. There’s a mechanism that allows airlines to restrict which routings can be used by fare. In this case, Delta has chosen not to restrict Minneapolis as a connecting hub on any of its Phoenix to Anchorage fares. For those who are really curious, here are the permitted routings.

308* 1. PHX-SLC/SEA/PDX/MSP/LAX/DTT/CVG/ATL-ANC
2. PHX-SLC-MSP-ANC
3. PHX-SLC-SEA/PDX-ANC
4. PHX-LAX-SEA-ANC
5. PHX-LAX-SLC-ANC

If you think Minneapolis is bad, trying going via Atlanta, because that’s definitely allowed here. So are double connections. But back to the point… since the rules allow connections via Minneapolis, that’s why travel agents and third party sites show that option. But Delta seems to have made a decision to restrict the number of options it shows on Delta.com even further. One way it can do that is by suppressing circuitous routings from displaying. The same kind of thing would likely apply to the Tucson – Atlanta – Austin route that Raj mentioned in his note.

There is good reason to do this. I remember when we were launching a new pricing tool on americawest.com long, long ago, if we didn’t restrict what we showed, there would be some goofy routings. Early tests, for example, showed an option from Phoenix to Vegas flying via New York. That’s obviously a stupid option, and it wasn’t cheap, so it was just clutter. You want to suppress those, and so we did. But what Delta is doing is different.

Is this routing out of the way? Sure. But it’s cheaper. And even more damning, it’s also more attractive than other options that Delta was willing to show. This one via Minneapolis had a total elapsed time of 10 hours and 9 minutes. That’s much longer than the option via Seattle which was only 8 hours and 14 minutes, but Delta was also showing an option leaving at 11:15am, going through Seattle, and arriving Anchorage at 8:35pm. That’s 11 minutes longer than the Minneapolis one, and the departure/arrival times were roughly the same. It gets worse. There’s a garbage option on Delta.com that leaves at 6:20am, has 3 hour+ layovers in both Los Angeles and Seattle, and gets to Anchorage at 8:35pm. That takes a painful 15 hours and 15 minutes.

Why are these terrible options showing up? Well, they’re not as circuitous as the Minneapolis connection. The problem is that the Minneapolis option is better and it’s cheaper. Delta is making a mistake by suppressing it.

I’d argue that Delta needs to fix this. It should put a little more rigor into the restrictions it puts in place, because if it doesn’t, people will just start booking elsewhere. If it really doesn’t want to sell that ticket via Minneapolis, it should do so by altering the routing rules, so that it won’t have a good fare. Unfortunately, my interaction with Delta didn’t give me any hope that there was an interest in addressing this issue. So if you’re looking to fly for cheap and you don’t care about going out of your way, you might want to rethink using Delta.com.

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28 Comments on "Why is Delta Hiding Lower Fares On Its Website? (Ask Cranky)"

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lipoffrog
Member

Is this problem unique yo Delta or could all the airlines have hidden price gems not found on their websites?

noahkimmel
Member
I understand the logic of trying to hide every possible option. You don’t need hundreds of options for most people. It would be overwhelming for the customer and expensive from a computing perspective. Just think something like MCO-LGA. Via Atlanta alone you could take the first MCO flight then connect to ~15 ATL-LGA segments, then repeat with 2nd flight of day and so on. Repeat again across hubs. You can quickly get into some really big numbers. And how many people want options for an 11, 12, and 13 hour layover? The scary part is that good time and price… Read more »
TimH
Member
But you’re not talking about hundreds of options: Brett shows all of the valid ways that DL will let you book PHX-ANC: Option 1 is connecting through 1 of several Delta hubs (including Minneapolis, but also Detroit and Atlanta, even further out of the way) and the other 4 options include double connections. So they’ve already done the computing work, in essence, by listing what the valid routings are. MSP is out of the way, but isn’t really that much more painful than connecting from somewhere on the west coast given schedule. The cost savings are almost besides the point,… Read more »
Ron
Guest

Aren’t domestic connection normally limited to 4 hours?

Mallthus
Member

I used to intentionally book circuitous routes when time wasn’t a compelling issue so that I could snag extra miles and flight legs. My favorite boondoggle was SBA-SLC-ATL-ORD, which I once successfully booked as SBA-SLC-ATL-CVG-ORD.

That’s less useful than it once was, but I’d totally fly PHX-MSP-ANC to save a few bucks.

Kilroy
Guest
I understand some of the logic in hiding the more circuitous routings, but as Brett pointed out, it’s hard to justify hiding them when some of the (less circuitous) routings that ARE actually shown not only have longer trip times, but perhaps also (and this is a subjective thing) more preferred schedules. To me this just smacks of a programmer or Ops person taking the easy way out and not fully considering the ramifications. Right or wrong, it just looks really bad from a PR side to be hiding itineraries that are not only cheaper but also shorter (in terms… Read more »
A
Guest
I’ve noticed similar but thought it was a nefarious plot by DL to bump profits while keeping people from finding low fare mileage runs for status. Seriously, only kidding a little bit. Many times I’ll take the more unusual routing if it puts me through a hub I prefer or keeps me on mainline metal, etc. Fare is important but far from the only thing I look at – granted I’m not the norm out there. Additionally my business travel is somewhat unique in that my clients book my flights for me direct through Delta.com. They don’t pay me hourly… Read more »
Bill from DC
Guest

It seems DL filters out results by mileage instead of by time. Time would make a lot more sense in order to eliminate the absurd double connection Cranky found but to display the connection over MSP that was reasonable time wise despite being somewhat circuitous.

I wonder if we can determine how other airlines do this on their websites and compare to the third party providers like Expedia and Orbitz. Might not just be a DL problem.

grichard
Guest

I understand that this might be an unintended consequence of suppressing circuitous routes. But it seems like a rule to the effect of “always display the lowest legal fare” is a pretty obvious idea. The fact that such a rule doesn’t exist–despite the flag saying “lowest fare” on your screenshot–just *has* to have been a conscious decision.

Kilroy
Guest
If Delta explicitly states that the lowest fare shown is the “lowest” fare, even when the true lowest fare is hidden (and Brett’s post isn’t clear on this), I could see a lawyer trying to launch a class-action suit against them. Even if the lawsuit were a failure or dismissed early on, it would be a nuisance and a bad PR for Delta to have to deal with on a slow news day, and you can bet that the politicians from IL, TX, and other areas where Delta’s competitors have a significant presence would probably rip Delta on the issue… Read more »
grichard
Guest
I don’t think that they are actually violating their own guarantee. If you read their “best fare guarantee” page, their terms apply only to finding a lower price on the exact same flights. The more interesting thing is the flag on their website’s booking page that says “lowest fare” and is visible in the screenshot in this post. This descriptor obviously means “lowest fare for PHX->ANC that meets your search criteria.” This post reveals that this advertising is inaccurate. This seems like a risky course of action to me, and I wonder whether it was inadvertent or a calculated risk.
Nicc Harris
Member
Interesting as I have a different but related issue on American. If I search for routes on the US version of the AA website I get lots of different flight choices that are not available on the HK version of the AA website, often better suited to my travel patterns. However as the US version of the AA website will not take my HK credit card I cannot book them, so am limited in choice to whatever the HK website offers. On the plus side where there is like for like, I do not see any difference in fares between… Read more »
Matt D
Guest

“Price sensitive”=euphemism for “cheap”. Come on. Just say it man.

zdcatc12
Member

Some of those old Cactus routings remind me of Peoples Express when you could book MCO-TPA via EWR!!

jaybru
Member

Of course, these fare questions are hilarious. Most airlines seem to have established the fact that the lowest fare is what we say it is. If you’ve found a lower fare, I believe the rule is you must not disclose it as such is a federal offense, just read our contract of carriage. I love how someone like UA routinely sells Basic Economy fares higher than regular Economy. Take IAD-LAS, May 1 and 2, the evening nonstop. $190 Basic Economy; $120 regular Economy. Nothing hidden but!

Bill from DC
Guest

That’s ridiculous. Sigh. United. (Head shaking)

Ron
Guest
Tangentially related: Last year I had to book an 11-year-old as an unaccompanied minor on Alaska. The best option was a 2:05 hour connection in Portland, but because Alaska limits unaccompanied minor connections to 2 hours, the website only offered a double connection through both Seattle and Portland, leaving earlier and ending up on the same last flight. When I called Alaska, the agent also only saw the double connection; I had to tell the agent to look at adult options to see the flight I wanted. It then had to go to a supervisor to approve a 2:05 hour… Read more »
Jonathan Reed
Guest

I have a similar issue trying to book United Super Saver business class to Europe from Las Vegas. The super saver awards are often economy to EWR and then business across the Atlantic. I would rather go LAS-SFO or LAS-LAX in economy than move to the front of the plane, but those options are not shown. Not sure is that’s because United is trying to make super saver options less available or whether it is due to not wanting to book circular routes

Neal
Guest

The examples all cite revenue fares, but Delta has the same problems with award flights and this supression is a huge reason SkyMiles is so hated. I wish Glen & team could stop their arrogance and be transparent.

Obwan
Guest
As I’ve gotten older, I absolutely HATE wasting my precious time searching the Internet for the lowest possible rate, walking endless miles through connecting airports, sitting on my butt in lounges, and all to save just a few bucks. I suppose a lot of these same people who are always trying to squeeze the lowest price out of the airlines, are the same people who piss and moan about the service they receive…all the while petting their “comfort” creature. These folks don’t believe in the old saying “you get what you pay for,” but they sure don’t mind getting what… Read more »
GM
Guest

A colleague mentioned something similar to me when he attempted to book a flight from ATL-YYC. The flights were operated on DL metal via MSP, but the fare was over $100 cheaper to book on Westjet’s website as a codeshare.

Jack Bauer
Guest

I’m told that these differences are the result of different pricing platforms – DL uses ITA, which does not support the combination of 2 locat fares.

JSE
Guest

I always check different flight search enginges when booking a flight but never met with such big differences. It surely makes you wonder if the company is trying to make you pay more on purpose… I hope other airlines aren’t using this method!