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Slippery pricing - Delta isn't the only one

Flyers have experienced slippery pricing on many airlines, not just Delta. Readers have found that the price can change mid-transaction on many other airlines. Why is this allowed?
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor

In a recent post, Delta Airlines and slippery pricing, I discussed an experience I had with Delta's website. I was trying to get home because there was a death in the family. While trying to purchase tickets home, I found that Delta's site offered "slippery pricing." That is the price advertised on the website changed in the middle of the transaction. Before I was allowed to check out, I was informed that the price had increased by roughly a third. This happened three different times when I tried to select routing through three different hub cities with three different departure times.

Surprise! Other airlines do this too!

Boy, the feedback I've been getting has been amazing. It appears that Delta isn't the only airline practicing "slippery pricing" on their website. Customers of AirTran, U.S. Airways, and United have also experienced the same thing.

Several readers described terrible customer customer service and "aggressive pricing strategies" when they were trying to get home for a funeral or to the hospital in a remote city when a loved one was on death's bed.

Delta called

A representative of Delta's CEO's office called after reading my previous post and discussed what the company is doing to learn how I experienced this type of pricing change mid-transaction. I was informed that Delta is tracking all user transactions and can examine what customers entered, the state of the flight databases at the time and see why their website displayed the results. They hope to better understand what actually happened during my attempts to purchase tickets to go home for the funeral.

I'll not try to describe the conversation word-for-word, but I will try to summarize my understanding of what was discussed.

Airline response to economic pressure

Delta, like all airlines, is facing high costs for fuel, equipment, fees and staff. It has turned to a number of strategies to earn a profit when selling their limited product — airline seats. Although not a topic of the discussion, some of the ways airlines, including delta, have used to increase revenues in this difficult environment include:

  1. Adding charges for things previously included in the fare — things such as meals, fees to transport luggage, fees for things such as blankets and pillows
  2. Encouraging customers to sign up for partner credit cards by offering to waive certain fees for cardholders. I suspect that the airlines are being paid a fee or commission by the credit card company for each individual they refer
  3. Segmenting seats into different categories and charging a premium for "more desirable" seats, such as seats close to the front of the aircraft and exit-row seats. The airlines have also changed the seat pitch, or distance between seats, in certain parts of the cabin so a premium can be charged for increased legroom.

My take on what happened

I believe that my experience is related to reason number 3 listed above. Since each flight has only so many seats, the seats are segmented in different pricing categories, and a whole host of people and systems are purchasing seats, it is possible that a category of seating was available at the beginning of a transaction and was sold before a customer could finish the transaction.

Rather than honoring the initial price, airlines just display a screen prior to checkout offering a seat in another category, a category that costs more than what was displayed originally.


While I can certainly understand what happened, I don't have to agree with it. If we use an analogy, it would be a like a grocery posting a price for an item, say a cabbage, and then surprising customers with a price increase at the checkout counter because all of the cabbages in one part of the bin had been sold and cabbages in another part of the bin were assigned a higher price.

Airlines really do a poor job of letting customers know about how seats have been categorized and the prices they've set for each category. A price is displayed for "a seat" and if all of the seats in that category have been sold before the customer can check out, the airlines demand a higher price.

It would seem to me that once an airline has posted a price for a seat, that price should be honored at the end of the transaction.

What's your take on this?

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