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

Ask Cranky, Delta

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.


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.


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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32 comments on “Why is Delta Hiding Lower Fares On Its Website? (Ask Cranky)

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

    1. Lipoffrog – It could be happening to any airline that cranks up the restrictions on what options it’ll show. I just don’t have examples of others doing it.

  2. 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 routings are left out and the Delta Best Fare Guarantee only covers same routing and fare classes found on other sites. I guess you could call to book it, but doesn’t help you know it is an option if you don’t see it. Sounds like it is time to tweak the filter – perhaps as simple as forcing the return of both the shortest total trip time and cheapest 2 or 3 options

    1. 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, it’s that there’s a perfectly valid option that Delta isn’t showing the customer. Being able to get work done in the morning, make it to the airport in time for a late lunch, and arriving in ANC before 9PM is attractive to some people, and Delta wasn’t willing to show a valid option for doing that.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 of time) than some of those shown.

    I’d suggest that button to turn on/off circuitous routings would be a good step in the right direction, as would showing them as a default when they are within XX minutes total trip time of the longest non-circuitous option. Better for Delta to show at least some of the circuitous routings and then try to upsell people on other routings (“For only $xx more, you can choose an itinerary with a similar arrival time, but with [only 1 connection instead of 2]/[less time spent cramped in the bone-crunching seats in our planes]!”).

  5. 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 so long layovers or going backwards halfway across the country isn’t their concern provided I get where they want me when they want me there. That being said, they are price sensitive and if AA.com shows a cheaper routing that’s where they’ll book me. It’s in DL’s best interest to get the sale, yes? Show me (them) the cheaper fare and you might get my loyalty providing I can give you my time.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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 as a way to sound pro-consumer and get themselves on the news.

      1. 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.

  8. 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 the same flight in US$ than the HK$ equivalent allowing for small FX cross rate differences,

    1. Nicc – Ah yes, I believe American uses a different search engine provider for non-US sites, and that’s how that sometimes gets mixed up.

      1. The AA Flight Schedules option also routinely displays routings that do not display when you search flights, either on the AA website or Concur (at least from my searches ex-EWR). Concur will let you book them if you force multi-city, and the cost is often comparable to any of the options that are searchable when booking.

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

  10. 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!

  11. 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 connection.

  12. 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

    1. Jonathan – Are you sure those have availability? West Coast – Europe is a much harder ticket to find for award travel. Of course, award is different as well because you can’t just go to another website and find it for fewer miles as you can with a paid ticket.

  13. 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.

  14. 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 OTHERS pay for. Think about all of the time and effort you spend just to save a buck. And remember, you’ll never see an armored car following a hearse.

  15. 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.

    1. FWIW I’ve seen differences of $500 each way between LH and UA websites for exactly the same flights. I presume each has some sort of different revenue management program.

    2. That’s common as when you code share you essentially buy seats and resell them, so code share prices can swing wildly, especially because you have to layers of math happening.

  16. 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.

    1. Jack – That’s not correct. ITA would, in fact, price two local fares if Delta allows end-on-end combinations in the fare rules. But this is a through fare anyway (XA0NA0ME, to be specific).

  17. 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!

  18. Those are some interesting examples but the basis for the lower fares in your examples are different routing. I just went on Delta.com to use my buy one get one from my Delta Skymiles card. The exact same fare from CMH to LAS was over $100 higher roundtrip on Delta’s site which I wanted to use for my certificate.

    The flight leaves CMH at 6:31 AM and arrives via DTW at LAS at 9:51 AM. The price on Delta’s site is $396 on Orbitz the exact same flight is 292.64. What a racket. So to use my certificate I have to pay over $100 more?

    By the way, I can fly on Spirit non-stop for 252.56.

    1. That could be many things. Orbitz has cached availability so it might not even be bookable at that rate. If you went all the way through, that would tell you. And for Spirit, was that via Orbitz as well? That doesn’t include a carry on bag, a seat assignment, or a variety of other things that you get on the regular airline tickets. So be careful.

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