If you do any amount of personal or business travel, odds are you have checked out some of those comparison shopping sites for airline tickets. You know the ones… Kayak, Expedia and a host of others are competing for a chance to find you the best travel deals. I’ve browsed them myself and the price differences they can come up with are sometimes stunning. But it turns out that not everyone is a big fan of such comparison shopping options. Who, you might wonder, could possibly not be in favor of this? The airlines, obviously.
As it turns out, the major carriers have been engaged in a fight to prevent such businesses from accessing their ticket price and schedule information for quite a while. The situation has attracted enough attention that last week the Department of Transportation put out a Request For Information (RFI) so they can investigate.
The industry group for travel sites, a number of its members which include online travel booking sites, and certain members of Congress have expressed concerns to the Department of Transportation (DOT or Department) regarding airline restrictions on the distribution and display of airline flight schedule, fare, and availability information (“flight information”). Specifically, concerns were raised about practices by some airlines to restrict the distribution and/or display of flight information by certain online travel agencies (OTAs), metasearch entities that operate flight search tools, and other stakeholders involved in the distribution of flight information and sale of air transportation. Airlines state that it is important for them to maintain control over the display and distribution of airline flight information while OTAs and metasearch entities that operate flight search tools state that actions taken by airlines to restrict the distribution or display of flight information are anticompetitive and harming consumers.
If the major airline carriers can pull this off, the benefits to them are immediately obvious. If customers have to call each airline individually and inquire about every possible departure and layover option to compare the prices themselves they are far less likely to do it. When you add in the fact that the best fare may involve a two or three leg trip using different carriers, the work required to ferret out the best deal is more than any but the most dedicated penny-pincher is going to put in. By opting for convenience, the airlines can charge you more and increase profits.
This debate has been going for for a few years now and groups concerned over a lack of consumer options have been studying the question. This report from 2015 was put together at Travel Tech and includes analysis by Dr. Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale professor and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Economic Analysis for the Antitrust Division at the Justice Department.
“Preserving the competitive benefits of consumers’ ability to access comparative and transparent information on prices and schedules of major U.S. airlines is more important than ever,” writes Professor Scott Morton in her study. “At a time when independent, transparent comparison shopping is most needed, some airlines are attempting to restrict access to their fare and schedule information, reduce the ability of consumers to easily compare prices, and drive travelers to their own websites, which do not offer price comparisons with other airlines.”
The “proprietary data” they are talking about is not in any way secret. The airlines are part of the transportation infrastructure, albeit in a private sector aspect of it. The prices they are charging for seats and the timing of flight departures and arrivals are not secret, restricted data. And they’re not looking to stop you from getting the data… just the outfits you might use to save yourself a few bucks. The arguments in favor of restricting access to this information are laughable.
The impact on the consumer is obvious but there’s more of an overarching story here when it comes to the airlines. What they hate more than anything else is competition. The airlines have been allowed to engage in one merger after another to the point where the idea of “competition” between them is little more than a joke. In an environment with no real competition it’s the consumers who suffer. There is no incentive to lower prices to attract business and the level of customer service drops. One could easily argue that most of the carriers in the United States these days are actively working to punish their customers with smaller, less comfortable seats, decreased leg room and fewer amenities. This is all designed to get you to pay extra for the “special” accommodations offered in more expensive seating. And the flying public has so few carriers to pick from (almost all of whom are doing the same thing) that the airlines pay no price for it. Too many of you absolutely have to fly for business or personal reasons and they know that you’ll keep coming back, no matter how expensive it is or how horrible the service has become.