Having wreaked havoc for travel agents and consumers over the past two weeks with changes to their combinable fare rules, the Big Three U.S. airlines appear to be tweaking their strategies regarding multi-city air fares.
The unannounced change in late March, which disallowed combining nonrefundable fares for circle and open-jaw trips, was unearthed by travel agents. Consumers would have had no way of knowing the cause of sudden spikes in fares—in some cases, more than double —for such trips.
Nor would they have known they could get a much better deal by purchasing each component of a circle trip separately.
In markets where they compete with ultra-low-cost carriers, the major airlines offer low nonrefundable fares. But the airlines did not want those fares to be combined with other fares to create more complex itineraries.
So GDSs, airline websites, and online agencies suddenly began returning search results for multi-city itineraries using only the much-higher refundable fares.
Business travelers, the most frequent users of circle itineraries (A to B, B to C, C to A) were hardest hit by the change.
And travel agents who figured out how to circumvent the extreme hikes were given an opportunity to show their worth to their clients. They also were given a lot more work, as well as the complications of dealing with three or more separate PNRs for a single trip.
Recently, the airlines have begun to allow the use of some nonrefundable fares for circle trips, resulting in less onerous total fare discrepancies.
For example, a St. Louis-San Francisco-Los Angeles-St. Louis trip on United in mid-May costs $919 when booked together, but $872 when booked separately. On the final leg, nonrefundable fares were “not available.”
But a New Jersey travel agent noted that the smaller discrepancies are not entirely helpful when it comes to the workload.
“The difference in some of the fares isn’t too bad, but the consumer is only interested in saving money,” he said.
“That gives us the job of checking and checking routes and city pairs—just a nuisance.”
Delta had a larger gap on a St. Louis-Detroit-Atlanta-St. Louis routing: $325 when booked separately vs. $875 when combined. Delta competes with Spirit Airways in the Detroit market.