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.
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.