Delta’s charging logged in frequent flyers more for tickets has been all over the news.
Delta Air Lines may have charged some frequent fliers higher fares than other customers for almost three weeks because of a computer glitch.
Delta acknowledged on Wednesday that frequent fliers who logged into its website to search for fares saw different prices than people who searched anonymously. Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec said frequent fliers sometimes saw higher fares, sometimes lower. He said the problem has been fixed and apologized to travelers.
It’s easy to joke that this means earning Skypesos, already a devalued currency, now generates negative value.
In a test search of three airfares, it was reported that one logged in Skymiles member was given a price $168 higher than a non-logged in customer. Delta says they fixed the problem before they were contacted by the media, though this seems odd considering that the reporters working on the story were able to replicate the glitch.
Hotwire used to vary price based on the web browser being used to search, someone interfacing with the site using Firefox would often get a price about $2 less than someone logging on through Internet Explorer. Perhaps they figured that a Firefox user was going to be savvier.
I don’t actually have a problem with an airline charging a different price to different customers, that’s the very notion of yield management, they want to tailor the price to a customer’s willingness to pay — the nature of advance purchase and Saturday stay requirements are precisely tools to extract more revenue from customers who are price insensitive, value their time highly, or are desperate to travel.
But it’s not practical to run a strategy where logged in customers see a higher price than customers not associated with a frequent flyer account number. I rarely start my airfare searches on an airline’s website, I tend to begin with ITA Software while others may begin at Kayak. Either way, and while not everyone follows these behaviors, there’s too much transparency for this to be sustainable. Even if an airline required booking on its own site in order to earn frequent flyer benefits, one might book without their account number attached and add it later.
Of course Delta is a leader in its efforts to unbundle its products, they offer some fares without the ability to select seats in advance even for top elites. One could imagine that they would try to move to a model where benefits applied only on bookings made through their site, and at a higher price even.
In this particular case, though, what Delta did is problematic because it’s a direct violation of its promise to customers. Delta’s Customer Commitment, last updated in September, is very specific that they will offer each passenger the lowest fare that applies for their given itinerary.
1. Offering the lowest fare available
We will disclose on our website, at the ticket counter, or when you call our reservation center to inquire about a fare or make a reservation, that the lowest fare offered by Delta may be available elsewhere, if that is the case. Currently, fares offered through delta.com, at the ticket counter, or when you call Reservation Sales are the same.
Delta acknowledges that they failed to honor that commitment, that they discovered the problem on their own even before they were contacted by media. And yet there’s no indication they made any efforts to contact affected customers.
That, it seems to me, is the fundamental problem here — not this being “the equivalent of the soft drink machine that dispenses $5 cold drinks on a sweltering hot, sunny day and $1 drinks on a cold, dreary day..”
Delta should honor its customer commitment. It’s difficult to retroactively identify what fares a customer could have been offered based on availability at the time they searched for a given flight. (Part of me expects a class action lawsuit nonetheless.) Still it seems like all frequent flyers who purchased tickets during the three week period of the supposed glitch ought to receive something in case they were affected by Delta’s breach of its published promise.