Frequent Fliers Might Pay More

Frequent fliers who don’t have much flexibility may be singled out for higher prices, according to a briefing from the Business Travel Coalition (BTC), which examined the consequences of a quiet agreement among airlines to share information about travelers. According to BTC, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) met in October to reach an agreement among its 240 member airlines about how to price and market airfares going forward.

According to BTC’s reading of the new resolution, the member airlines will now be able to demand a large amount of information about a customer before they quote the price — and the price could be “adjusted” higher if the airline thinks the customer has no choice but to pay it.

I have located a copy of the IATA document, called Resolution 787, and the amount of information that the airlines may try to collect before they calculate your airfare could be staggering — whether you’re traveling for business or tourism, whether you have a travel agent, name, age, if you’re married or not, nationality, your contacts, your frequent flyer number, your shopping and travel history, and whether you’ve been willing to purchase extras like a clubroom pass. And the list goes on.

In other words, it looks suspiciously like the airlines have agreed that they have the right to collect a great deal of information that would allow them to figure out how much spare cash is burning a hole in your pocket. The New York Times shared BTC’s concern in an editorial they published yesterday:

“It seems clear that the standard, as described by the group, could also be used to present higher fares to, say, a business traveler who airlines determine could pay more because she travels between New York and Dallas every week.”

Are frequent flyers themselves concerned? In an online discussion at Flyer Talk, a gathering place for frequent fliers, some posters claimed that airlines like Delta are already doing it. A poster called DLdweeb said:

“I start at Google Flights (or Kayak) and after I select my itin[erary] I keep that window open for a while. I then go to [the Delta airlines website], log in, and see if the same price is offered. If yes, I continue on If no, I go back to the Google flights page and it will send me to the page and I’m already logged in, and miraculously the lower fare is suddenly offered.”

In other words, Delta’s site allegedly has figured out from the poster’s computer cookies and shopping habits that this person is not going to be willing to pay the higher price. If the airline thought the poster would pay more, the lower price might never be revealed.

I might as well admit that someone tipped me off to this concept some while ago. I can’t be certain because airfares do vary during the day, sometimes by a great deal, but I believe that I’ve observed what DLdweeb described. Like some other frequent fliers, I usually clear the cookies on my computer before I start shopping, in order to give away the least amount of information to the airline.

Will frequent fliers actually end up paying more if airlines are able to quote different prices to different people?

It probably depends.

Some people will continue to figure out small tricks to game the system, and those travelers will find lower prices. Others might not even guess they’re being offered a higher price than the next guy — and those frequent fliers will almost certainly pay more.

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