Typically I try to avoid going “into the weeds” with extraneous details about how the travel industry works, and keep my advice as high-level and relevant as possible. While I wouldn’t provide you with advice that wasn’t relevant, this issue will take a little background and understanding.
In short, airlines must distribute their product (airfares) like any other company. In the days of old, this would happen either directly (via calling the airline) or via a distributor (such as a travel agent). The advent of the internet upended this duopoly, giving airlines a more efficient way to distribute their product offerings – via their own websites.
Travel agents either adapted or died out. I chose to specialize in frequent flyer miles and provide that additional value to my clients; most other agents provided value by creating an easy space to comparison shop among airlines (e.g. Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity). The new development is that airlines have begun to view their data (including airfares) as proprietary. The main reason behind this is that airlines want to sell as many tickets directly as possible, thereby avoiding paying booking commissions to travel agents.
Germany-based Lufthansa has thrown down a new gauntlet in this war. Recently it announced that it would begin charging fees for tickets booked through online travel agents of €16.
While Lufthansa is the first airline to begin charging a direct booking fee like this, it is not the first airline to assert control over its publicly available data. The invaluable search tool Expert Flyer was swatted with legal threats by Delta recently, preventing it even from displaying Delta’s publicly available flight information.
The apparent trend here is that airlines are considering their data – including airfares – to be proprietary. It’s in airlines’ interest for consumers to shop direct, and not have tools to comparison shop price and availability. This follows three major mergers in the U.S. airline industry that have reduced six competitors down to three. The bottom line is that airlines hate competition, and don’t want consumers to have the tools to comparison shop easily.
I expect Lufthansa will not be the only carrier to implement a policy like this. U.S. airlines may follow suit, and if they do, here are a few steps to remain a savvy consumer and beat the airlines at their own game:
- Continue to comparison shop via online travel agents or sites like Hipmunk, ITA Software or Kayak, then book directly with your airline of choice
- Popular booking engines may not display prices for all airlines (such as Southwest); expend your searches to include airlines like this
- Remember that price isn’t the only consideration; frequent flyer benefits may outweigh a small price difference
Airlines may not want you to find the best deal, but I do. Contact me via this website or the comment section below to make sure you’re on the right path to getting the best deal on airline tickets.