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Do Airlines Give Their Best Fares to the Search Engines?

Airfare monitor Airfarewatchdog recently posted a report showing that search sites promising to find the “lowest fares” often don’t make good on this promise. The specific instance involved a search for a New York-Bermuda trip where Priceline found a fare that was $20 lower than the best deal Kayak found. A reader wanted to know what might be going on and what it means to consumers.

Basically, what happened here is that JetBlue had the lowest fare; Priceline’s search included JetBlue, but Kayak’s did not. It wasn’t a case that JetBlue selectively withheld some fares from Kayak; instead, Kayak didn’t (and doesn’t) include JetBlue in its search at all.

This is by no means the only situation where a site’s claim that it can “search once for all the fares” really doesn’t work. For a variety of reasons, the big third-party search engines don’t cover all the feasible options:

  • In some cases, this omission may be due to an argument over the fees between an airline and an individual search engine. For a while, for example, American was feuding with Orbitz over some fee issues.
  • In other cases, an airline actively doesn’t want search engines to include its fares. The most visible case is Southwest, which runs ads highlighting that the only way to find its fares online is through its own website.

Other lines that the big search engines usually skip include Allegiant and Direct Air, as well as some smaller foreign lines. I’m not sure whether these omissions are due to fees or policies.

As far as I can tell, gaps in search engine coverage are a part of a larger and ongoing fight between airlines and third-party agencies over who “owns” you, the consumer. Certainly, both airlines and third-party agencies want to be your “go to” source for air tickets—and, they hope, for associated hotel accommodations, rental cars, travel insurance, and anything else you buy as part of a trip. The airlines want to keep you because they want to be your first choice for air travel, plus they want to gain additional revenue from selling the rest of the travel you buy. Third-party agents, on the other hand, obviously want to get their hands on the same revenue streams.

The current fight isn’t limited to airfare searches. Currently, American and Southwest are separately fighting with several sites, such as AwardWallet, MileWise, GoMiles, and UsingMiles, which help you manage your frequent flyer mileage and accounts and help you decide whether to buy a ticket or use miles for a trip you’re considering. The lines cite a number of flimsy excuses for their opposition to these sites, but the real reasons have to do with control. And in exercising control, the airlines fall back on a technicality that many frequent flyers don’t even realize exists: You don’t really own your miles; the airlines do. That’s an absurd position, on the face of it—after all, they keep pushing you to “buy” more miles, and, at least to me, “buy” implies ownership. That situation cries out for legal or regulatory relief, but don’t hold your breath until you get any relief. Meanwhile, the airlines hold all the cards.

For you as a consumer, however, knowing the reason for something, even if that something is a gouge or a deception, doesn’t really help overcome it. What you need to do is figure a way around an obstacle, and here the way around it is obvious: Never accept the claim that any one online agency will really search all feasible alternatives. Instead, you have to be a wary consumer:

  • You have to know which airlines the search sites omit. And if any of these lines is of interest to you, you have to check that line separately.
  • Even when a search engine includes all the airlines of interest, always check with that line’s individual sites to verify that the search engine found the best deal.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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