Creating Order from Chaos: Fixing How You Buy Airline Tickets


I don’t really need to even say it, but I will.  Buying a ticket from an online travel agent sucks.  It’s hard enough to compare apples to apples when there are so many different options out there, but online travel sellers have made it far worse by doing virtually nothing to ease the burden on consumers.  Some may argue that this has been great for airlines.  After all, confusion can lead to people just paying more.  But the airlines don’t actually feel that way.  Instead, the big three in the US have been working with ATPCO (the fare distribution company that the airlines own) to create a standard for grouping fare types into categories.  This new standard makes sense, but it’s going to take some getting used to.  It involves using a star system the way hotels do to rank their properties.

Don’t think of this star system as being a rating system like TripAdvisor or a movie rating site.  This is meant to be used the way hotels have used it for years, as a way to note which hotels have which amenities.  ATPCO’s proposal is to rank an offer from 1 to 6 stars, and I should note, this particular setup is just for the US market for now.  Other markets might require tweaks to the categories.

Here’s the initial proposal.

In short, a one star option is Basic Economy.  If seat pitch is 32 inches or less, then it’s a one star option if one of these three are true:

  • No carry-on bag allowed
  • No advance seat assignment allowed without charge
  • No changes allowed

If none of those three are true, then it’s a two star option, regular coach.  

A three star option is like Economy Plus, an extra legroom coach seat.  If the seat has more than 33 inches, that’ll count.  So even JetBlue’s regular seating would get three stars.

A true premium economy option would get four stars.  That would include domestic First Class seating and older sub-par business class offerings.

Today’s standard Business Class with a flat bed would get five stars.

Lastly, a six star offer would be something with suites onboard, a true international First Class product.  (Though it’s possible Delta One with the doors might count.  This one seems a bit fuzzy so far.)

This may sound like a gimmick, and the star rating system itself may be.  But this isn’t about stars.  It’s about finding a better way to sell travel.

Online travel agents have for years thrown their hands in the air, complaining that the airline offerings are so different that they can’t effectively compare the way airlines do on their own websites.  With this categorization (whether using stars or any other label), online travel agents will finally be out of excuses.

This does require getting the airlines onboard to ensure their offerings can be put into these categories automatically (which they can be already, manually).  In fact, the call I sat on yesterday seemed mostly meant to educate airlines about the proposal and to try to get them onboard.  This is a work in progress, but it’s one that would effectively create a standard that could be used by all third-party sellers.

This vision is that you could go to Bob’ (or any other site) and see something like this:

But even that’s just the start.  There are also underlying attributes that you could use to filter out the things that matter most to you.  For example, if a flight has power or not won’t make it move between star rating categories.  But those underlying details would also be coded so that filtering would be easy if you need to have power.  They could also be used to compare options to each other.

It would get even more granular than that in the data.  Let’s say you want wifi, but what kind of wifi do you need?

The whole point here is that ATPCO is trying to put everything into boxes.  If there’s enough organization, then it’s easy to create this standard… if the airlines all go along with it.

Right now, ATPCO is in the early stages, what it calls the “Driver Concept” to start getting airlines on the same page.  A proposed draft solution should be ready early next year.  The solution is expected to be completed by the end of 2019, and then in 2020, it’s time to implement.

Will the airlines all go along with this?  American, Delta, and United seem to be excited by the general idea.  Presumably others will follow, assuming the standard can be defined in a way that it serves each airline well.

This may be a first step, but it’s an important one.  If this goes through, then comparing air travel options should become much easier.

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30 comments on “Creating Order from Chaos: Fixing How You Buy Airline Tickets

  1. Interesting article Crank but this is a waste of resources. Once one airline wants to do the “next best thing” and screw the competition then this house of cards will tumble down. Instead of creating this system of mirrors here’s an idea: improve the entire flying experience for the customer!!

    1. Most airlines offer first class if you want a better experience. Otherwise people have voted with their wallets. People want low fares more than they want service and amenities.. If that wasn’t true Spirit would have gone bankrupt after 6 months.

      The issue is people want Greyhound prices but 1960’s PanAm service as soon as they step on board.

      1. You have to be very deep inside the legacy carrier bubble to believe the “passengers want to be treated like crap” argument.

        1. They don’t want to be treated that way, but they have little interest in paying for anything more than the bare bones, and then are consistently surprised they aren’t treated like rock stars.

  2. The USA airlines customer service and customer satisfaction has become a embarrassment to the rest of the world .The amenities that were offered as a common courtesy for loyal travelers has become a thing of the past ! The conditions for a jet traveler have become atrocious ,The seating has become tighter and tighter ,the food and beverages have become restrictive, the jets are filthy breading bad flues and colds . The American public needs to wake up and file complaints against these greedy airlines. Or we just stop traveling on these airlines.

    1. Greedy airlines? Even now, in the good years, their profit margins as a percentage of sales are far lower than many other companies whose products and services Americans interact with on a regular basis, like Apple and Microsoft.

      1. Kilroy,
        Their business model and profits are something that they have created themselves. Fix the customer experience. Can you imagine if there was high speed rail (like in Europe)? How many fliers would jump on that?

        1. How many times have your taken a high speed train? I’ve taken the TGV many times between Montpellier and Paris only because there is a TGV between those two cities. It takes 3 h 30 min. each way for around 550 miles, or about one hour by airplane. The train stations are not particularly clean, you load on the train like cattle, seats in coach are tight, you pay for baggage and food or water. And they are not inexpensive. If I wanted to go anywhere else, it is by car, airplane or slow standard train. And what if I wanted to go somewhere farther than Paris? Difficult connections, high prices and a much longer travel time (a long day to get out of the country). If we had one, who would go by TGV from LA to Chicago at 150 MPH? Maybe if you had a few days… Why do you thing airlines like Ryan and EZJet are so popular? They are inexpensive, get to the destination quickly and go many places high speed trains don’t.

            1. Then you should know that those trains are heavily subsidized by the state. They would not stand on their own if not for state money. The train is a nice alternative in megalopolis areas like the northeast corridor. Pretty impractical for going across regions.

            2. Having worked for Amtrak long ago, there are two things about trains that are very different than planes. First, they are political animals with an economic mission. The quality of service, like airlines, depends on whether the cost cutters or service expanders and ridership builders are in control.

              Second, rail only works in high density corridors. As Vinay points out, Amtrak’s NEC probably could make a strong operating profit. As might Brightstar in Florida or even parts of the Midwest High Speed Rail Initiative. But if you have been on an Amtrak lately, service is trash, timeliness is an exception and they’re able to inconvenience and screw customers at a level airline executives only dream of.

            3. And the “first class” product on Acela is worse than the business class or coach in some ways. If you are stuck at a 4 person table in first class, it’s tighter than the table at the dining car on a standard Amtrak train.

          1. I agree that the TGV isn’t terribly comfortable. German/Dutch ICE trains, however, are amazingly comfortable, beating the pants off any airline coach or domestic first class seat. And what do you mean you pay for baggage on TGV? I suppose if you want to check bags there may be a fee; I frankly didn’t know that was possible. But bringing the equivalent of two airline checked bags and a rollaboard is no problem as far as I can tell; I haven’t run close to bag limits on limited TGV travel and a handful of ICE trips.

            And what do you mean you load on the train like cattle? You wait for the train on the platform and walk onto the train when it arrives.

            The separate Paris train stations are an issue for connections through Paris (ditto London), but that’s much less of an issue elsewhere in northern Europe (the area I’ve traveled around in a reasonable amount by a combination of train and plane). Certainly in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the networks are such that connections are generally a piece of cake. And it’s not like air connections through Paris are pleasant, especially if you have to go from CDG to Orly.

            High speed trains also go to many places that flights don’t (especially when you factor in connections to local trains, which are nearly always easier than from planes). Planes and trains each have their place in an effective transportation network.

    2. Two of my worst memorable seat pitches weren’t on US Airlines. They were Iberia Express (a 320) and two weeks ago on Jetstar Asia.

      If I pay $60-90 for a seat I don’t really expect or need food or coddling, just reliable service to get me there. I’ve paid for upgrades, nice seats, and on board food on some flights to treat myself and flying companions. But I also like the cheap options to fly RT for a super low price. For a two hour flight it doesn’t bother me. I like the choices.

    3. Is it just American airlines? Travel the world and you will see the extent in which the US domestic market has generated low-quality, low price institutions. Eat fast food, where is the quality food establishment that is American worldwide, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King? What supermarkets has the US given the world, Walmart, Costco. Are US cars bought outside North America in comparison to the other world car manufacturers? The US produces (in the main) products to satisfy its domestic market and the airlines are a reflection of that.

  3. Ok, I get that the online travel agent websites are a bit limited and this is probably a bit better approach. In my opinion it still only works on a major route where you have true competition, i.e. multiple airlines flying the exact same routes. Once you add a layover the metrics of the discussion change in my opinion – at least they do for me and I know they definitely do for any family traveling with children.

    My bet is they’re courting the budget traveler here to avoid complaints about things like carry-on baggage so why show the premium seating at all? Keep it down and dirty for budget travel explaining clearly what the cheapest fare is and the limitations of said fare. And even at that Southwest certinaly isn’t going to participate so what’s gained here for the consumer? It’s still going to be a hassle for a novice to truly understand their options.

  4. This sounds like the market segmentation idea that brought us 50 kinds of potato chips. Would you like cheddar, sea salt, barbecue, blue… etc.etc. How much of this idea is adding value to the customer and how much is just complicated marketing nonsense? A few people may want blue potato chips and twenty flight options, but most people want a comfortable seat on a reliable flight – and yes, at a predictable price. Many – maybe most – airlines can’t deliver on amenities like wifi anyway and most people hate marketing razzle-dazzle with a passion. Too many airlines have been taking the cheese off the pizza with smaller seats, smaller lavs, and longer routes with skinny planes, and the customers know it. Instead of looking to the grocery aisle for inspiration, why not look at MacDonalds? One kind of french fry, three sizes, better quality than anyone else.

  5. What the system proposal does is to give the potential user of airline services pricing and options consistent with what they want. If the user wants cheap, no-frills service with no carry-ons, middle seats and pain throughout the flight, basic economy is just the service for him or her. If a customer wants more, there it is! It is like going to Macy’s on Herald Square.

    If the U.S. flying public wanted sparkling new planes, wide seats, gourmet dining aloft and an in-cabin ambience worthy of exquisite travel from days gone by, then there would be no doubt Delta, American and United would offer the service. But that’s not the service for which the airline market is willing to pay. The airlines have experimented over and over again with amenities, more room in coach, dining and gosh knows what else but the mass market says the same thing: Give us cheap fares and nothing more. I’ll put up with your crap if I can fly coast to coast for $99.00

    Sure, I’d like sleeper seats in coach for my trip from Chicago to Los Angeles and my company would pay for it, if the cost was equal to Southwest, Allegiant or Spirit. Some have tried the international equivalent of this and have lasted, oh, about 10 minutes and a cup of coffee.

    Let’s face it: we’d sell our own mothers for 5 percent off basic economy to MCO!

      1. Robert, I am assuming then that you are willing to pay for it. So you would be well-served by the star system telling you where you can avoid “trash service.”

        Unfortunately, “trash service” is an abstract noun with no quantitative definition. Which is the problem with the star system in that much of the problem with its effectiveness goes directly to quantifying individual qualitative differences.

        But back to the point, trash service to a flyer of Singapore Airlines’ ultra long-haul service is just about ANY U.S. Airline. Ditto for Emirates. But to an Allegiant flyer, trash service has a whole different meaning. The market for Singapore’s service and its accompanying cost would be you. But it probably would not be an Allegiant flyer who is getting $125 round-trips to Orlando-Sanford Airport in January and is just happy to be out of Akron’s -12 degree temperatures.

        Not sure what’s corporate about that. The star system Cranky writes about simply makes sure you get what you want and Mr. and Mrs. Allegiant get what they want. As the saying says, “Know before you go!”

  6. The star system is broken from the start. It basically describes the seat which would be OK, but the 1-star category is different and describes a host of potential restrictions for basic economy. The table thus implies that anything 2-star and above would allow a carry-on, free advance seat selection, and changes. What about restricted business fares that charge for seat selection (thinking of British Airways)? What about a model like Spirit, where the big front seat is an add-on?

    I agree that the airlines have put themselves in a corner here by pompous branding that obscures the actual classes. Years ago (I think 2005) I was in line for check-in at Heathrow when an elderly couple came, very confused, because they couldn’t find the appropriate line; I pointed them in the right direction, but they rejected the help because they thought they weren’t in World Traveller class — they were flying economy. The star system is intended to restore some uniformity to the class descriptors; I guess it would be OK if it just described the seat (but then why not use a common descriptor)? But the attempt to use stars for a combination of seat descriptors and fare restrictions is just confusing.

    1. Well Cranky did say “… this particular setup is just for the US market for now. Other markets might require tweaks to the categories”. And the European airlines would definitely want a (massive) tweak. BA’s Club Europe and Lufthansa’s short haul business class products use economy seats with 30″ pitch. So they would be 2 stars, the same as their non-basic/light economy.

      I see some merit in this, as a way of getting products into the new NDC. But it does show the challenges involved.

    2. Just a quick addition: I also think the hotel star system is broken. Maybe it was meaningful up until around the 1980’s; but who knows what counts as a 3-star hotel these days?

  7. Although this seems like it will be somewhat like an improvement (although I’m not sure how well it will work with 100+ flights to choose from instead of 4), there really isn’t much standardization between airlines to say what “select free seat” or “changes permitted” actually means. “Select free seat” could mean any available seat, or only middle seats in the back of the plane, and “changes permitted” could mean any changes for free, or changes allowed but you have to pay $200 on an $220 ticket to do so, or any number of variations on that depending on the airline, specific ticket, or specific flight. Presumably this information could be written in the “description” section, but I don’t see it there.

  8. I think people are confusing quality of service with ammenity levels. I had a really good experience on Wow, and absolute 1 star ticket but indifferent service on Lufthansa for a three star ticket.

  9. Nowadays there are airlines talking about personalised offer. What’s the point of this unification? For who’s benefit? OTAs?

  10. Hopefully everyone but Southwest joins in on this (because, let’s be real, Southwest won’t…though they only sell two-star tickets anyway so no big deal). It’s annoying to have to check fine print to figure out whether a given United flight is their standard economy or we-won’t-even-sell-you-a-carry-on Basic Economy.

    That said, Delta, American, and Alaska currently have a better one-star product than the others due to being able to bring on your carry-on. I can live with their published Basic Economy fare, whereas on United I’d have to get Economy, and on Spirit/Frontier I’d be paying upcharges for both a seat and a carry-on. So there’s a bit of nuance here.

    And that nuance better stay there. Hopefully the market reacts decisively if AA/DL/AS try taking away carry-ons in Basic Economy again.

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