Delta Air Lines’ frequent fliers are outraged to discover that special deals offered to them on the airline’s website could be bettered simply by searching for fares on the website anonymously. Those who had never flown with the airline could obtain cheaper fares than frequent fliers.
Disclosure of Delta’s higher-prices for frequent fliers have outraged its most loyal customers and triggered a storm in the US. The US Department of Transportation (DoT) is looking into the issue. The airline blames the glitch on an experiment that used a new company to manage flight searches on its website.
It was only by inadvertently making side-by-side reservations that two business travellers learned about the differences in airfares displayed for frequent fliers compared with airfares displayed for consumers who signed into Delta.com without a frequent flier number.
Two US passegner advocacy groups, the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) and Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA) have weighed in on the issue and demanded increased DoT vigilance.
“This episode or ‘computer glitch,’ as Delta identified it, clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive comparison-shopping across airlines. If this is what some airlines have in mind – for their most valued customers – when they say that they want to ‘customise offerings to the individual traveller,’ then all consumers should be on guard,” a joint BTC/CTA statement declared.
BTC chairman Kevin Mitchell said: “This development shows that there must be a system that empowers consumers to compare and purchase all airfare offerings and ancillary fees across multiple airlines. We must guard against unfair policies and practices that short-circuit the free market and deceive both business and leisure travellers by showing the traveller only those offerings an airline wants the passenger to see.”
CTA director Charlie Leocha felt similarly. “It would appear from reports that one of the benefits of belonging to Delta’s SkyMiles program is the privilege to pay more for your airfare,” he said. “When it comes to prices, it’s time for airlines to start telling the whole truth.”
The consumer advocacy groups say Delta, by displaying on its website two different airfares at the same time to separate passengers, has violated its own customer service commitment displayed on its website’s legal pages.
“A consumer being forced to shift between reservation records on separate computers to replicate the price differences would not discover these price differences because of the dynamic nature of airfares. It is only when all pricing alternatives are shown on a single screen, or on side-by-side screens, that pricing manipulations like this can be discovered.
“Anyone fluent in software development and deployment knows that these kinds of issues rarely come about without careful coding and thorough testing. The fact that Delta admits that this situation has existed for some time suggests that the issue was not a mistake, but more likely a conscious IT initiative designed to extract maximum revenue from passengers known to purchase more than just the lowest airfares.
“BTC and CTA both call for a DoT review of apparently deceptive airline price-display practices not only for airfares, but also for the growing numbers of ancillary fees, especially baggage and seat-reservation fees.”
The DoT is now looking into the matter. Delta has explained, reportedly, that it uses third-party companies (such as Google’s ITA Software) to power searches and that it was in the process of running a side-by-side experiment to compare two of them. As a result, the airline’s current search provider dealt with people logging in with their frequent flier numbers, while people who searched anonymously were served by the experimental provider. Delta did not name either of the third-party search companies and contends that the searches were not identical as some connections on cheaper flights were less desirable.
Delta says it ended the side-by-side test on 9 May 2012.
Written by : Peter Needham