Delta Hit With Charges of Airfare Manipulation

The Business Travel Coalition (BTC) and Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA) have joined forces to denounce Delta Air Lines' alleged practice of charging frequent-flier members higher airfares on its website than consumers who did not identify themselves as members.

The two groups called for increased U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) vigilance of airlines' potential unfair and deceptive marketing practices and of airline compliance with their published customer service commitments. The BTC and CTA did not accept Delta's explanation of a computer error.

"This episode or 'computer glitch,' as Delta identified it, clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive comparison-shopping across airlines. If this is what some airlines have in mind - for their most valued customers - when they say that they want to 'customize offerings to the individual traveler,' then all consumers should be on guard," the groups said in a statement.

According to Kevin Mitchell, BTC chairman, "this development shows that there must be a system that empowers consumers to compare and purchase all airfare offerings and ancillary fees across multiple airlines. We must guard against unfair policies and practices that short-circuit the free market and deceive both business and leisure travelers by showing the traveler only those offerings an airline wants the passenger to see."

It was only by inadvertently making side-by-side reservations that two business travelers learned about the differences in airfares displayed for frequent fliers compared with airfares displayed for consumers who signed into without a frequent flier number, the groups said.

"It would appear from reports that, one of the benefits of belonging to Delta's SkyMiles program is the privilege to pay more for your airfare," said Charlie Leocha, director of CTA. "When it comes to prices, it's time for airlines to start telling the whole truth."

"Delta Air Lines, by displaying on their website two different airfares at the same time to separate passengers, is violating their own customer service commitment displayed on its website's legal pages. Delta's duplicity was repeatedly tested and verified by independent media researchers," CTA said.

A consumer being forced to shift between reservation records on separate computers to replicate the price differences would not discover these price differences because of the dynamic nature of airfares. It is only when all pricing alternatives are shown on a single screen, or on side-by-side screens, that pricing manipulations like this can be discovered, CTA said.

"Anyone fluent in software development and deployment knows that these kinds of issues rarely come about without careful coding and thorough testing. The fact that Delta admits that this situation has existed for some time suggests that the issue was not a mistake, but more likely a conscious IT initiative designed to extract maximum revenue from passengers known to purchase more than just the lowest airfares," BTC said.

BTC and CTA both urged a DOT review of apparently deceptive airline price-display practices not only for airfares, but also for the growing numbers of ancillary fees, especially baggage and seat-reservation fees.

Delta Air Lines said it may have charged some frequent fliers higher fares than other customers for almost three weeks because of a computer glitch, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Delta acknowledged that frequent fliers who logged into its website to search for fares saw different prices than people who searched anonymously. Delta spokesman said frequent fliers sometimes saw higher fares, sometimes lower, the AP reports.

A Delta spokesman said the problem has been fixed and apologized to travelers, the AP says, but didn't know how many people had been affected.

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