Airline Pricing Shouldn’t Be This Hard, But It Kinda Is

Airline pricing engines can be complicated things.  Some of them rely on decades-old technology and it’s not unheard of for fares to be manually loaded at times.  Folks punching fares into computers are a rarer breed nowadays.  And yet, we still see plenty of pricing “errors”.

I’m not necessarily talking a mistake fare.  I still can’t tell if those $600-ish business fares Qatar Airways sold earlier this week were an error or not.  But, my ruminating today is about more subtle “errors”.

Basic Economy Snafu?

By now, I’m guessing you’ve heard plenty about Basic Economy fares.  These are those restrictive fares the airlines have rolled out, giving us another reason to dislike them.  United Airlines has been my primary carrier this year.  I’ve seen more than the occasional Basic Economy fare that looks wrong.  While I’m guessing some are intentional, others really just seem like mistakes.  I was looking to book an upcoming trip from IAD to DTW (Washington-Dulles to Detroit for those folks who don’t do airport codes).  Here’s a look at the Basic Economy pricing for my date of travel:

Airline Pricing

It looks like I cut off the column headers when I took the screen shot.  The first column is Basic Economy, second is regular Economy.  The third column is fully refundable Economy, and the last is First Class.  I’ll admit, the price spread there makes it pretty appealing to buy up to regular economy. Basic Economy pricing exists on this route, so this just seems like a computer bug.  Who knows, maybe it’s a “feature”?

Special Upgrade Pricing?

After I got done booking my flight, United offered me an opportunity to buy-up from Economy to First Class.  Pricing has come way down on domestic First Class, but it’s not something I’d normally consider for such a short flight.  I ended up buying one of the $151 one-way fares, where First Class was $250, or a difference of $99.  United was nice enough to offer me this buy-up:

Airline Pricing

I’m guessing I won’t take them up on the extra $20, but you never know.

The Final Two Pennies

Airline pricing is at least 3 parts dark magic and witchcraft.  I don’t really think it has to be that way.  Airlines have avoided investing heavily in updating their IT to current technology, leading to occasional systemwide crashes that ground entire fleets.  Getting the pricing right on a single route is the least of their worries.

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1 Comment

  1. I just looked in EF at the fare filings. There is a r/t BE fare at $302 (VRA7AFBR) or a o/w BE fare at $151 (VAA7AFEN). Both are in V.

    There is also a slightly cheaper o/w BE fare (VAA1AFBN) but I’m guessing you miss the a/p window for that (7 v 10 days)??

    For the QR fare that was almost certainly a currency error. The price was loaded in VND and should’ve been in USD. With the current conversion ratio that’s a big hit.

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