I’ll never understand airline pricing

So last month I registered for the Women in Secularism 2 conference in Washington, DC, reserved a hotel room, and went to book a flight out…and was shocked at the prices, roughly $500-$600, and some of the cheaper flights wanted to land me in Baltimore. It made no sense — I could fly to Seattle (and will be, later this month!) at a fraction of that price. So I didn’t book, and just waited.

And then I checked again today, and found lots of flights at half the original price. It’s like playing Calvinball, the rules just change at the airlines’ whims.

Anyway, yes, I’m going to flit into DC the morning of 17 May. How many of you will I be seeing at the event? Now might be a good time to arrange your flights, because who knows what the prices will be like tomorrow.

Comments

  1. says

    “some of the cheaper flights wanted to land me in Baltimore”

    Baltimore-Washington International is located in the corridor between Baltimore and Washington. You can take an express bus from there to the Greenbelt Metro station (info at wmata.com) or do Super Shuttle or a cab. BWI is one of the standard DC area airports, along with National and Dulles.

  2. pedz says

    This confusion is one of the reasons I think a better description of you is liberal as opposed to atheist.

  3. says

    This confusion is one of the reasons I think a better description of you is liberal as opposed to atheist.

    Why, is there something about being unconvinced of the existence of deities that makes a person an expert on airline pricing?

    Because if so….damn, I want in!

  4. says

    Airline pricing is information asymmetry at its best. If it’s any consolation, the industry has apparently not made a profit over most of its existence.

  5. Simon says

    DC local here.

    If at all possible I would recommend folks flying in use Reagan National assuming price and availability are satisfactory. It’s only a 10-15 minute taxi or metro ride to downtown and the conference hotel.

    Baltimore (BWI) and Dulles are each about 45 minutes away but have train and bus options that are affordable as well.

  6. gshelley says

    Maybe you checked at night the first time and in the morning the second time? That seems to make a difference. Or maybe the other way round

  7. Matt Penfold says

    Have you tried going anywhere by train lately?

    You should try buying a rail ticket in the UK! There are about a zillion different permutations of route, time, how far in advanced you book, whether you can only travel on specified trains ………

    The end result is it can be cheaper to buy a return ticket than a single. And no one really understands what tickets are valid when.

  8. paulburnett says

    Terry McTigue (#1) wrote “Baltimore-Washington International is located in the corridor between Baltimore and Washington.”

    Riiight – BWI is 8 air miles from downtown Baltimore and 27 air miles from downtown DC. (National is in Virginia, on the Potomac River across from DC, and Dulles is 22 air miles from downtown DC in Virginia. Bolling Air Force Base in DC doesn’t even have any runways any more – Andrews Air Force Base is 10 air miles from downtown DC in Maryland.)

  9. UnknownEric is just a spudboy, looking for a quantum tomato. says

    You should come to Baltimore anyway, PZ. Not that there’s really a whole lot of stuff to do… or see… but you could meet me!

    Yeah… okay… there is really no reason at all for you to visit Baltimore. :)

  10. Brandon says

    As Jamesheartney says in #4, the pricing issues are almost entirely about information asymmetry; airlines are trying to make a larger profit during what they project as high demand flight times, but they’re not able to project those very well at all. At least that’s my weak understanding of it. The algorithm that Kayak uses to project prices seems to do a nice job giving consumers a tool to at least make an educated guess though.

    As another DC local, I’ll second that flying into DCA is optimal if it’s affordable, since you can step right out onto the local metro. If you fly into BWI, buses and the MARC train are both feasible options, if a bit more time consuming than just metroing to your final destination.

  11. says

    Baltimore-Washington International is located in the corridor between Baltimore and Washington. You can take an express bus from there to the Greenbelt Metro station (info at wmata.com) or do Super Shuttle or a cab.

    Or take the loop bus to the MARC station and take a comfy and easy train-ride down to union station right in the heart of DC. MARC doesn’t run as often as a supershuttle but it’s nice to avoid the DC drivers.

  12. tallgrass05 says

    Airlines have complex algorithms that assign various and changing prices to seats depending on location in the aircraft and the day the flight is scheduled. Someone sitting next to you could have paid twice what you did or much less, depending on when they bought the ticket.

  13. mjmiller says

    PZ
    Theres no reason to fly into Baltimore or Dulles or even Reagan, since according to the rules you can make Mornington Cresent in two!

  14. Trebuchet says

    The mistake you’re making, PZ, is expecting rationality from an industry which, by it’s own accounting, has never made a nickel in nearly 100 years of doing business.

    The fact that my pension comes from a company which is mostly dependent on the airlines for its income (with the remainder coming from the Federal Government!) gives me the willies sometimes.

  15. unbound says

    A few points:
    – As a local to the DC area, all three airports (National, Dulles, BWI) are considered part of the area. Keep in mind that our average commute to work is about 34 minutes (2nd longest in the US). BTW, most (but not all) locals call it National not Reagan.
    – From what I’ve observed about airline prices, you don’t want to buy more than about 7 to 8 weeks out in general. The highest prices are 8+ weeks early and 2 weeks or less to go.
    – Since there are reasonable options in the area to get from any of the 3 airports to the metro system, always check all three airports. BWI is the biggest pain in general, but can be the cheapest rate by a significant amount many times. In a few more years, Dulles will have a metro connection if you intend to stay in that system.

  16. Matt Penfold says

    Just be thankful that you do not have Ryanair in the US, an airline that has seriously considered charging to use use lavatory on flights, and is looking at ways to remove seats and have people stand.

  17. robro says

    In the distant past, back when humans lived with the dinosaurs, the rule of thumb for cheap flights was book early. Now it seems the rule is to wait until the last minute. A lot depends on your flexibility.

    Also, airlines like to send you on round about trips. This is the part I don’t get. I once wanted to go to Jacksonville, Fl. There are no direct flights from here (SF) to there, which is to be expected, so I found a ticket with a non-stop to Memphis connecting to a flight to Jax. Now I’m a musician and I thought “Memphis! I know, I’ll fly to Memphis, rent a car, maybe go by Graceland, travel through the Delta, heck even spend a night in NO, then drive to Jacksonville.” So, I tried booking a non-stop to Memphis. Nope. I had to fly to either Houston or Denver. Weird.

  18. says

    “I could fly to Seattle (and will be, later this month!)”

    Yay! Will you be doing drinks with your fans? I’d totally love to sit at the Big Kids Table this time.

  19. kaboobie says

    I usually start looking for flights around 3 months in advance, and usually the prices drop at around 2 months out. In the case of WiS2 I managed to find a great ticket price last month.

  20. says

    A few years ago, Google acquired a Massachusetts company called ITA, whose primary product is a flight price query service for the massively complicated flight pricing data from the airlines. Their customers include Kayak, Orbitz, Bing, etc. The major airlines all use 1960s era IBM mainframe computers and software written in machine language to handle their passenger reservation systems, and they’re all connected via leased lines and ancient protocols such as Type B Messaging, which were originally transmitted via Teletype.

    An excellent book about the history of the airline industry that explains how the pricing rules became so complex is Hard Landing by Thomas Petzinger Jr. Apparently the computer language used by the airlines to encode the pricing data is a Turing complete language which means that it’s powerful enough to encode rules of arbitrary complexity. That’s why you often get these weird situations where flights of much greater distance via stopovers can be cheaper than the direct flight.

    Anyway, if you’re looking for U.S. flights and you haven’t tried Google Flight Search yet, you’re missing out. It’s using the same ITA backend as the other services, but it’s really fast and fun to play around with so you might be able to find a better price by exploring the search space more extensively. (Disclaimer: I’m a Google employee on the Android team).

  21. Randomfactor says

    Have you tried going anywhere by train lately?

    Last year I had to make a 50-mile trip along a corridor served by Amtrak in a combination of bus and rail links. They wouldn’t sell me a bus ticket unless I showed up at the terminal and pretended I had just gotten off the train. They didn’t check, but I had to pretend. It was a pleasant ride, quite inexpensive–but not a ticket that was offered anywhere online.

  22. harvardmba says

    As expected, the moment P Zed gets out of the ivory tower he’s befuddled. No surprise there.

    The algorithms to effectively manage airline inventory is complex and nuanced, and rapidly changes based on moment-to-moment changes in the market. And that’s the only thing keeping the airlines barely able to run.

    Or we can just have the government mandate fixed pricing for all seats, and watch the entire country become grounded.

  23. erichoug says

    The truly baffling part comes when you start travelling in Europe, Asia and the Middle east. I took a flight from Bangkok to Phuket island, a flight on a 747 for 45 minutes. If I bought the ticket 6 moths in advance, the price was $40. If I bought the ticket 1 hour before the flight, the ticket was $40. When they sold all the tickets, they stopped selling tickets(Baffling!) and the plane took off on time. They’ve been doing the same run for 20 years and have always managed to turn a profit.

  24. Anthony K says

    And that’s the only thing keeping the airlines barely able to run.

    They must have trouble attracting competent management with such tight margins.

  25. Anthony K says

    HarvardMBA is still here? What on Earth for?

    If you had an MBA from Harvard, you’d be filling your days reading blogs too, I guess.

  26. Nentuaby says

    Wow. Nothing like an utterly banal thread to really make it obvious who’s an obsessive cupcake.

  27. says

    We’ve had con, flights and hotel booked for a month now (and the flights were cheaper than $500 each, even cross-border). We’re making an extra-long weekend out of it (arrive Thurs AM, leave Mon PM). And after going to the Reason Rally/AA Convention last year, I second the recommendation on using Reagan (especially as the WIS venue is like, three blocks off the Mall).

    Looking forward to seeing everyone who makes it!

  28. tbp1 says

    As far as I can tell, there is no actual connection between what it costs them to fly you from Point A to Point B and what they charge you.

    As part of my job I sometimes have to book flights for people coming to my university. Last year I was flying someone in from NYC. As it happens my wife and I fly fairly often through NYC to and from upstate NY. It was almost twice as much to fly my guest from NYC as it was to fly through NYC from upstate, connecting to the same flights from NYC to here and vice versa.

    In 2003 I suddenly had a few extra days off, so I thought I would go visit my father, who was sick (actually dying, although we didn’t know it then). The cheapest short-notice fare I could get from where I live in the mid-south to west Texas (ca. 1100 miles) was $1500. (Remember this was in 2003.) When I could book ahead the same connections never cost more than $500, often under $400. I ended up not going. Of course if we had known just how sick he was, I would have gone. I know the airlines aren’t set up solely for my convenience, but I have always resented it that an irrational pricing policy kept me from some time with my father in his last months (I did manage to see him on a later occasion, but he was only conscious an hour or so a day by that time.)

    I checked and discovered that for the same money, for the exact same dates, I could have flown to Tokyo or Johannesburg.

  29. Anthony K says

    While we’re talking about the genius Harvard MBAs who run airlines successfully despite it being so very fucking hard to make a profit, we should probably talk about how they adopted this method of loading that’s been demonstrated to be the most efficient, saving customers and airlines alike time and money—OH WAIT, OF COURSE THEY DIDN’T.

  30. Shaun McGonigal says

    I’ll be there. We live in Philly, so it’s just a drive for us.

    Looking forward to it!

  31. silomowbray says

    Or we can just have the government mandate fixed pricing for all seats, and watch the entire country become grounded.

    It’s not the country that would become grounded, just the compensation for some of the C-level executives.

  32. strange gods before me ॐ says

    Apparently the computer language used by the airlines to encode the pricing data is a Turing complete language

    Goodness, I should hope so!

    The prospect of working with anything less is terrifying. (To me. Yout’ these days, yeah yeah.)

  33. Brian Engler says

    I’ll be there, but will be driving in from Northern VA. Glad to see you’ll be representing your daughter at WIS this year, PZ. I enjoyed meeting her last time.

  34. says

    Re: 26 Randomfactor 5 March 2013 at 12:47 pm (UTC -6)

    Yeah, that’s because they’re not allowed to compete as bus services. So, for instance, if I want to take their bus (which terminates in my home town) I have to buy it at the station. But if I get on at the train station, I can buy it online. It’s all sorts of weird.

    I tried checking the Metro-North (or any of the related light rails) out of NYC and they only plot service out four weeks now. So if you want to know if anything is running or not, you have to find a similar date within the next four weeks. For instance I wanted to know if they ran on a holiday. They wouldn’t tell me. It’s stupid.

    But hey, they’re profitable. That’s why conservatives in congress forced Amtrak to sell of the line.

  35. lpetrich says

    BWI? You can catch both MARC and Amtrak trains from its nearby station. Though MARC is weekday-only, Amtrak runs all 7 days of the week, and is at least as frequent.

    Washington National? (I hate that stupid personality cult of Ronald Reagan) As some others have mentioned, Washington Metrorail has nice access.

    Dulles? You’ll have to catch a bus, but you can catch an express bus to a Washington Metrorail station. There’s a WM line being built out to Dulles Airport, the “Silver Line”. Part 1 will go about 2/3 of the way, and should open this year or the next. Part 2 will go the rest of the way, and a little bit further, and may open in 2018.

  36. Ruth says

    Matt Penfold, on UK trains -

    “The end result is it can be cheaper to buy a return ticket than a single.”

    It can also sometimes be cheaper to go First Class than to go Second Class.

  37. gussnarp says

    You got lucky, or maybe waited long enough – supposedly the online ticketing sites use cookies that keep track of what flights you’ve searched for and will raise prices the second time you look at the same flights, unless you use your browser’s incognito mode. This is sort of internet lore, so I don’t know how accurate it is, but it doesn’t hurt to browse for flights incognito. Maybe I’ll do some tests on it.

  38. David Marjanović says

    http://www.farecast.com/ has been recommended to me. It predicts, I’m told, how prices are going to change. I confirm from experience that if you check the price of a flight several times over weeks, it can become more or less expensive seemingly at random, and that two-way flights are often cheaper than one-way ones.

  39. thumper1990 says

    The algorithms to effectively manage airline inventory is complex and nuanced, and rapidly changes based on moment-to-moment changes in the market

    …and is only understandable by someone with an MBA from Harvard because they’re like, well smart and stuff, which is why HarvardMBA has a highly paid day job involving large amounts of down time which they spend on the internet misusing metaphors.