Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew

Warning: Slippery travel

Warning: Slippery travel

Last week, I caught Delta trying to charge me more for a flight found when I was signed into its system. The same flight was $79 cheaper when I wasn’t signed into its system.

In its response to me, Delta doesn’t deny that it delivered two conflicting prices to me. But Delta claims that the difference happened because the price of the flight fluctuated while I was searching. It wrote, “it appears that during the short time between your searches (according to our logs it was about 11 minutes), the inventory for that flight changed and a lower-priced fare class (a T class) became available. The change in the lowest-available fare was unrelated to SkyMiles status.”

There are a few things I find ludicrous about this attempt to defend the discrepancy. One is that Delta claims the elapsed time between my flight checks was 11 minutes. I searched immediately, partly because I was in sticker shock and partly because, as a consumer reporter and a travel writer for more than a decade, I am perfectly aware that prices can change at a moment’s notice. I went back and forth between the browsers, double-checking, which means there were at least three searches by me; I screen grabbed only the last ones I did while they were still on the screen.

Then again, the airline also hedges by saying “it appears” this was the case. It can’t be sure.

But I didn’t expect anything different. Delta just gave one of the standard-issue excuses that all airlines give when they’re accused of fare shenanigans:

“Prices are always changing.”

They can weasel out of a lot by claiming that, and because they keep the pricing opaque, customers can’t fight back with any facts.

“We realize that airline fares can be complex and can fluctuate,” Delta continued, (and, although I’m defensive, somewhat condescendingly), “which is why if you find a lower fare by 12 midnight Eastern Time on the same day you purchased your ticket at delta.com, you can access your itinerary via delta.com and click on the “Change Flights” button. Your new fare will be ticketed and the refund for the difference in fares will be credited to your original form of payment.”

Nice to know. My translation: “We know we’re incredibly confusing and our pricing may indeed screw you. That’s why we give you a chance to do even more research and clean up the mess as long as you do it by midnight.”

There are two other all-purpose excuses the airlines use to get out of consumer complaint—legally.

“We’re just keeping up with our competitors.”

That’s how, minutes after the FAA stopped charging tax on flights this week, Delta (and other airlines) raised fares by exactly the same amount, pocketing $200 million a week.

The airlines, with few exceptions, claimed they couldn’t give consumers a break because none of their rivals were. (That doesn’t make much sense to me. You’d think the airline that’s cheaper would win in the marketplace. But things don’t have to make sense in Airline World. They just have to be legally defensible. And profitable.)

It’s worth noting that Delta and AirTran are both reportedly under investigation by the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. Also, a judge rules that a class action lawsuit, filed by passengers who accuse the two of colluding to institute baggage fees at the same time in 2008, may proceed.

The other all-purpose excuse the airlines use to dodge sketchy behavior?

“It’s the weather’s fault.”

That’s how, last December, I was stranded at JFK for 32-plus hours when Virgin Atlantic refused to let me out of a flight even though it was scheduled to depart at the peak of the snowstorm of the decade. And once it marooned us, there were no blankets and no food. Irresponsible? Yes. But if an airline finds a way to blame the weather, as Virgin Atlantic did, the government can’t punish it. This one often works even if the skies above your airport are crystalline clear and the bluebirds are chirping sweetly — surely you’ve been handed this excuse on an apparently beautiful day. You can’t speak for what the weather is doing somewhere else.

These excuses are pretty much iron-clad. Why? Because you can’t prove them false. You aren’t privy to the truth.

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