It’s been a couple of weeks since I awarded American, Delta, and United a Cranky Jackass Award for blocking most fares from pricing on multi-city trips. Since that time, they’ve all been tweaking their fares and rules furiously. United appears to have backed off the most while American has been somewhat more conservative. Delta? It’s still the most aggressive. This situation is getting Jackassier. (Someone call the OED, this word needs to be added, stat.)
Some Background You Can Skip
I won’t go into great detail about the background (you can read the last post for that), but in short, the airlines have been struggling to find a way to control how many people have access to those really cheap ultra low cost carrier-matching fares. For example, they want someone flying from DC to Dallas to be able to buy it, and they want the same thing for someone flying from Dallas to San Francisco. Both of those routes (including nearby airports) have multiple low cost options including Southwest, Virgin America, and Spirit. The problem was that being competitive on those routes meant that people flying from DC to San Francisco via Dallas could also take advantage. Airlines didn’t like that.
To fix the problem, the airlines dropped the hammer. They made it so that fares could not be combined with other fares on a single ticket except for a simple out-and-back roundtrip (from point A to point B and back to point A). This solved the problem of people being able to combine the DC to DFW and DFW to San Francisco fares on one ticket, but it also caused a bunch of other problems. Notably, it meant that multi-city trips, which are fairly normal for business travelers, wouldn’t price.
This led to some pretty strange results. For example, someone flying DC to Dallas, staying for awhile, then flying to San Francisco, staying for awhile, and then flying back to DC on American (with a short connection) would pay, as the example went last time, $1,837.20 to buy everything on a single ticket. Bought separately? Those were a mere $412.80.
Of course, your regular leisure traveler isn’t going to buy that ticket. It sounds insanely expensive. But a business traveler might. Big companies that use online booking tools present their employees with options for the trip at hand. The employee isn’t going to worry about the price if it’s something that shows as being within policy.
What’s Happening Now
In the last couple weeks, the airlines have been furiously trying to tweak this whole thing to fix this new problem. United has mostly backed off its plan but not on all fares and not in all markets. For example, it allows multi-city pricing on all 22 coach fares it files between Washington and Dallas/Ft Worth, but in its Chicago to Orlando market? Its lowest fares don’t allow it. Only a fare that’s $90 each way above the lowest will price.
American is similarly inconsistent, but it tends to be more restrictive. Let’s update that trip that we’ve been using with Saturday’s pricing.
You can see that the individual fares have shifted a bit on each leg, but not really by much. That’s normal. Bought independently, this particular itinerary is now $418.80. But bought together? The price has now dropped to only $628.20. Bargain! (But still more than buying separately.)
In the Washington to Dallas/Ft Worth market, American blocks its lowest fares from being used on multi-city tickets. It’s only the fare that’s $215 more one way that will work on a multi-city ticket. But in the Dallas/Ft Worth to San Francisco market where United has more influence, only American’s first super cheap $39 one way plus tax fare won’t allow multi-city combinations before the next one at $114 plus tax does.
Then there’s Delta. Delta is still the most restrictive of all. What it appears to have done is kept its old non-refundable fares banned from working on multi-city tickets. But it has now added new fares that do work on multi-city tickets. Those fares aren’t cheap ones, and they don’t exist in all markets.
In Dallas/Ft Worth to San Francisco, Delta’s lowest fare is $104 plus tax. The first fare valid on multi-city tickets is $185 plus tax based on a roundtrip. That’s one of the better deals. Try one of its own markets like Orlando to Minneapolis, however, and it’s a different story. The lowest fare ($99 one way plus tax based on a roundtrip) won’t allow it, nor will the next 7 filed fares. The first fare that allows multi-city tickets is $252 one way plus tax based on a roundtrip.
What the F***
If this sounds all over the map, it is. That’s because the airlines are struggling to maintain multiple different pricing strategies in a variety of different markets. They implemented one strategy to start matching low ultra low cost carrier fares. Then there were unintended consequences when people could start combining those fares in markets that airlines didn’t intend to sell them.
Then what happened? They came up with another solution to fix that problem and surprise… there were more unintended consequences… this multi-city issue. Now they’re trying to fix that as well. Who knows what they’ll screw up next.
This creates problems both internally and externally. Internally, I had one person in sales at one of the big three airlines tell me, “You need to create an inaugural Cranky Piñata Award and give it to AA/DL/UA sales teams.”
Externally, all this does is erode even further what little trust may have still existed. So, customers, be careful. Always check one way pricing, and don’t trust the airlines when it comes to displaying the best fares for your trip.
To those on the airline side, is that really the message you want to be sending to customers? It may be time to rethink how you’re handling this.