Booking flights is like eating cereal… except the ‘special’ marshmallows are razor blades.

A few folks have queried me regarding my lack of posts over the last year. I attributed it primarily to my own relative happiness, implying that I tend to only compile the agglomerations of rage commonly known as my ‘rants’ when I am angry.

Well, I’m angry now.

Of late, I have had to book a lot of flights. Thinking back, the word ‘flying’ once exuded overwhelmingly positive connotations; freedom, the open skies, and being one with the mythical Gods themselves. Over time, as the novelty of human flight wore off on society, the commercial component of the experience dictated its identity entirely. Today, with excruciatingly few exceptions, flying is quite possibly the worst way to get anywhere. From paying exorbitant flight fees, to paying to check your bag, to wading through cancer-inducing security lines, to seats with legroom appropriate for a pelican. Flying just plain sucks; so much so that it drives some people toward mental breakdowns, at which point they literally jump out of planes to escape the horror of it all.

On the surface, booking a flight online seems like an ideal experience: simply go online, click a few things, and voila, you’re done! Unfortunately, as it turns out, it’s actually one of the most rage-inducing processes known to man.

At present, I have a few flights I’m trying to book over the next few months. One of these flights has literally doubled its fares in a matter of a week, for no apparent reason. On its own, this issue would not bother me — this would be manifested in a common marketplace as one store having inflated prices. The typical reaction from me, the consumer, would be to simply never go to said store anymore, and purchase my product elsewhere. The store would then realize that their customers may, in fact, think on occasion, and then reduce their prices to meet the market levels. This is a natural balancing act present in most fair marketplaces.

Of course, online flights do not follow the same economy; rather, they more accurately reflect a monopolistic environment. The minute one web site’s flight prices skyrocket, every other flight search website in existence also has its prices skyrocket, at the exact same time, with the exact same prices. This is not a coincidence, and everyone knows it. The immediacy of the change negates the natural balances normally at play, and heavily abuses the flight search sites’ collective ability to control supply. There is no justification for the service of flying an individual from one location to another change its value by 100% within 24 hours. The sad part is that no one even claims such axioms to be true; instead, the sites silently practice this openly without any ramifications. It’s robbery in broad daylight, folks.

The truth is, even the savvy consumer cannot defeat this system. The erratic nature of the pricing means that no system can predict it, so the typical consumer barely comprehends the extend of abuse that is happening. On most occasions, buying flights earlier is cheaper, but sometimes waiting a few days drops the price by hundreds of dollars. Why? No one knows, except the vendors, of course.

There is no perceptible logic behind the prices; they embody a proverbial entropy of possible values. Furthermore, because the technology that facilitates this is still relatively new, there are no regulations to prevent companies from openly abusing the system to take advantage of consumers. To supplement my case, I interviewed a hypothetical traveler in my head, and transcribed the result below. Obviously, everything below can be interpreted as 100% factual information.

ME: So, how much did the last flight you booked cost you?
TRAVELER: Umm, something like $500.
ME: I see. Is that a lot of money for that flight?
TRAVELER: Well, all the web sites I checked had it at that price. So, I did my research. Usually when I’m buying something I go to all the stores and check to find the lowest price; that way I know I got the best deal. So, it must have been the best price.
ME: Have you flown this flight before?
TRAVELER: Yes, a few times.
ME: How much did it cost in the past?
TRAVELER: One time it was around $350, another time I paid around $400.
ME: Why do you think the prices changed so much?
TRAVELER: I don’t know… maybe gas prices went up?
ME: I just searched the flight you went on — it’s $300. Did gas prices just halve since you flew?
ME:: Even if they did, that would mean flight prices were based on gas, so the longer the flight, the more expensive it would be. Right?
TRAVELER: …yes, that would make sense…
ME: There are hundreds of flights that go twice as far as your flight for half the price.
TRAVELER: You are making me sad now.
ME: You just buy flights without having any idea what their actual value is worth, so you just pay whatever price you see.
TRAVELER: I… I… don’t have a choice…
ME: Exactly.

I hope someday a savvy entrepreneur or developer sees the opening here and builds a service that optimizes flight searches for you. Bing has tried to do this, but I find their forecasting system to be occasionally reliable at best. I want to be be able to put in some dates for my flight, and expect that I will pay the standard amount for that flight. End of story. Is that really so much to ask?

For all of you flight buyers out there who blame yourself for “missing the price drop”, stop beating yourself up. Instead, target your rage towards the flight search companies.

My suggestion: procure a harpoon and deploy a variety of arrows to their collective faces, and then charge them an inconvenience fee for making you waste time buying a harpoon.

3 thoughts on “Booking flights is like eating cereal… except the ‘special’ marshmallows are razor blades.

  1. Econ guy says:

    I very much empathize with your pain. However, the market for air travel is perfectly competitive, not monopolistic; that’s why there are multiple carriers offering the same to / from at a very similar price, and also why airlines are very much hurting for profits (and thus coming up with creative surcharges left and right).

  2. Dwayne says:

    I think it was partially created by one of the Reddit founders.
    It has a useful ‘price graph’ feature. I think that may help you find the ‘optimal’ price for the dates/destinations.

    I hope a spam filter doesn’t eat this comment…ha.

    TBH, I don’t fly much…so I haven’t used it. But I hear good things.

  3. User says:

    Clear your cookies or browse with incognito mode to stop the price spikes. Airline websites track your history and raise prices on an individual basis to make it seem like prices are quickly going up.

    Also, I know someone that works at United and their job entails setting airfare prices. They focus on screwing the business customer any way they can. They also publish their rates to a database that the entire airline industry has access to, which has been investigated and tweaked so their collusion is ‘legal’. You’re right to assume a type of conspiracy theory… there is one.

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