THE FINE PRINT
Simplified Airfares That Aren't
Over the past year, several airlines--Delta, Air New Zealand, Aer Lingus, and Chile-based LAN Airlines, in particular--made news by "simplifying" the way they price flights. It sure sounded good: One of the most annoying things about flying is the nagging sensation that the passenger next to you paid hundreds less. Bigger airlines have taken note of how JetBlue and other upstarts gathered loyal customers--who like that they're not gouged, even if purchasing at the last minute.
In some ways, the new simplified fares are indeed simpler. Particularly for one-way tickets: In the past, a one-way could be more expensive than a round trip, but now it's usually around half the price of a return. A one-way from Boston to Shannon, Ireland, in autumn on Aer Lingus cost $838 before the changes, $284 after. In many cases, Saturday-night-stay rules are gone, as are weekend surcharges and minimum-stay requirements. As a result, lots of itineraries that used to cost a fortune are now feasible.
But in other ways, airfares are as confusing as ever. Delta flights used to come in more than 20 different fare classes, based on advance purchase, change rules, and other restrictions. Now there are around eight categories for domestic flights, but that's still several classes too many. When searching for flights at delta.com, you're given a choice between discounted and deeply discounted coach tickets, and it's difficult to tell how they're different. Why would anyone choose merely discounted seats when a deeper discount was offered? (Adding to the confusion, after Delta entered bankruptcy it started requiring Saturday stays again for some fares.) Air New Zealand announces official annual flight prices, but they're often undercut by competitors' sales--as well as by discounts from Air New Zealand itself. The bottom line is there's still no way of predicting what you'll pay for a given flight.
The people who most stand to benefit from the new fares are business travelers and anyone buying last-minute. A walk-up coach seat on Delta from Burbank, Calif., to Boston dropped overnight from $1,253 to $499. The end of price-gouging is to be celebrated--but it's not the same thing as a true discount. For travelers who fly standard round trips and buy their tickets well in advance, there's rarely a noticeable price difference.