This one is just mind-boggling. US Airways has quietly slipped in a $5 surcharge when you book flights at usairways.com, their own f*&*’n website! I’m not sure when it started, but it had to have been recently. Combine this with the expiration of the online booking bonus at the end of November and they have not only eliminated any incentive to book on the website, they’ve actually created disincentives. Add in the fact that they bury this surcharge into the base fare so you won’t find out it’s there and US Airways gets the first fire-red-with-anger Cranky Jackass.
First of all, let me show you what I found. I always participate in the Phoenix HeartWalk every spring, so I looked up flight options from Long Beach to Phoenix leaving Feb 29 and returning Mar 2. I usually start with a metasearch site like Kayak or Sidestep and then go directly to the website for booking. This time, I tried Farecast and saw this:
I clicked through to US Airways and the price didn’t show up as $117 but rather $122.30, as you can see here:
I started trying to figure out what was going on, so I looked around at a bunch of other sites. You can see I’ve cobbled together the prices from the OTAs below:
They’re all also $122.30 except for Orbitz with its penny rounding error and Priceline with its $117.30 price. So while Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia add their $5 service fee, US Airways has quietly decided to do the same for bookings on their own site. What’s even more shady about this entire thing is that US Airways has buried it into the base fare so you would never know that you were paying $5 more than the base price. And since Priceline no longer has booking fees, you can actually get the flight for less money by booking on Priceline.
Now my curiosity got the better of me, so I called up reservations to see what they’d say. They told me that fare would be $122.65 plus a $10 reservation fee. I have no idea how they ended up being $.35 more than anywhere else, but it’s clear the $5 fee applies to phone reservations as well. And that’s on top of the $10 fee they already charge. At this point I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of this, so I opened up the KVS Availability Tool and looked at the surcharge fare rules in the SABRE system. Unfortunately, this is what it gave me:
Though this won’t show me the surcharge, I have to think there is one in there or it wouldn’t be hidden from agency view.
This makes absolutely no sense to me on so many levels. First of all, all US airlines, including US Airways, have spent years trying to convince customers that the best place to go to find the cheapest fare is their own websites. It was an unwritten agreement between airline and customer that you could go to the website and not find it cheaper anywhere else except for possibly from the stray consolidator or when packaged with hotels and car rentals. Now, US Airways has decided to chuck that right out the window. The years and money they’ve spent on building up that reputation have been flushed right down the toilet. And the fact that they try to hide it in the base fare so the customer can’t see it makes it even worse.
What does this mean to me? Well, if I do fly US Airways (and this does make me slightly less likely to do so), I’ll book at Priceline. There’s no reason to spend more money to buy on the US website if I can get it cheaper elsewhere.
Did they really think people wouldn’t find out about this? Did they think they could charge more and nobody would change their behavior? I asked my PR contact at the airline and
he wasn’t aware that this was happening he said “the $5 increase you’re seeing is essentially a fare increase to fares booked at usairways.com.” (updated 12/11 @ 1002p)
I’m sure they’ve done the calculations. They’re smart people. The bet is that they can make more money with that $5 hidden surcharge than they’ll lose from people ditching the airline, migrating to Priceline for cheaper fares, or booking via other OTAs for more amenities and better service. Sadly, that bet is probably right in the short term and potentially right even in the long term but that’s harder to predict. That’s why if they had done this so that people could clearly see the fee, it might be hard for me to argue even though I don’t agree with the decision. But the sneaky nature of this just leaves me feeling cheated.
What does this mean for the OTAs? Will Priceline re-institute a booking fee or will they continue to have a price advantage? If I were Priceline, I’d keep the advantage and enjoy the influx of people who will book on the site. But you have to think that US Airways will pressure them to add a fee again. If not, lower back-end commissions may be in their future. (I’m assuming they still get some.) For all the other OTAs, well, things just got interesting. Many of them offer customer service above and beyond what customers get through the airline, so if the price is the same, why not get more for your money by booking through OTAs?
And what about the metasearch guys? After I found that issue on Farecast, I looked at Kayak and Sidestep as well, but USAirways.com didn’t even show up as a seller. Maybe US Airways will plan on backing away from all metasearch guys now that they won’t look as competitive as they did before. If not, metasearch sites like Farecast will have to adjust their USAirways.com fares by $5 to be accurate.
Wow. This one is just incredible.