We’re going to start with three separate chapters covering basics in Airline Fare School, which I’ll abbreviate as AFS. Before we venture into some of the fun stuff, you need to have a solid grasp of the underpinnings of the system.
I’ll bet you think an airline fare is simply the price you pay to get from Point A to Point B.
Well, in a way you’re right. But there is a lot more that goes into it than that. In order to get somewhere you need a fare, a rule for that fare, a routing that says how you can get there, and a seat on a valid flight booked in the inventory prescribed for that fare.
To keep this lesson semi-short (ha!), this chapter will cover only fare displays and rules.
The public almost never sees airline fare displays (also called tariff displays) but they underlie the GDS (“global distribution systems”) used by airlines and travel agencies.
In the “old days” when I began in the industry in 1979, the typical inquiry from a passenger about the price of a ticket began with the airline reservations agent or travel agent first checking to see what the fares were in the market based on these criteria: the customer’s travel dates, destination(s), length of stay, and ability to buy the ticket in advance. Once the possible price was established the search for available seats on flights began.
Starting in the mid-80s, the GDS (then called CRS – “computerized reservations systems”) added functionality that would on command automatically rebook a flight or set of flights for the lowest price available based on the same criteria.
With the advent of the internet, you the consumer, now can see the end result of the process thanks to even more powerful systems that present an array of flight and price options to choose from.
I call it the slot machine effect: throw cities and dates in and then see what comes out.
What you need to understand, however, is that everything you see on-line (or are quoted on the phone by an airline call center agent or travel agent) is derived from the same components of fares, rules, routings, and flights as have existed for decades and well before computers even became commonplace in the travel industry.
So to help you understand how what you see on-line was compiled, we’ll go through the process as it was done in the old days and even now is still done on occasion by skilled airline employees and travel agents.
Let’s start by looking at an airline fare display. (Throughout AFS you will be seeing responses from the Apollo system that I use. The three other systems – Sabre, Worldspan,and Amadeus – present the same information in similar formats.)
What you see below is for travel on United Airlines between Sacramento (SMF) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) for Tuesday, 13 October. All of these fares here are one-way; there are no round-trip fares published in this market. That means if you are traveling round-trip the best possible price is simply double the lowest one-way fare, provided your trip complies with the rules of the fare in both directions.
The key pieces of information are arranged in columns from left to right that include:
- line number (for displaying rules)
- fare basis (a unique code that corresponds to the rule that governs that fare)
- advance purchase requirement
- minimum/maximum stay (none shown because there is no such thing for a one-way fare)
- cancellation fee
- effective dates of travel (first and last)
- effective dates for ticketing (first and last)
For domestic travel, fare displays do include the 7.5% Federal Transportation Tax but do not include the various other user fees and security fees that by law must be assessed and will appear in the total price of a booked itinerary before ticketing.
Now while you may be thinking that the information under each column would be all that you would need to know about the fare, it isn’t. Airline fare rules – especially those of the so-called “legacy carriers” like United, American, Delta, et al, go on and on and on. And on.
Let’s look at just a small part of the rule for the lowest fare, the $99 fare with the fare basis code of LA14ON8. (As I said, airline fare rules go on and on, so we’re just going to look at a small part of the rule. If you would like to see the entire rule e-mail me and I’ll tell you a way you can see it. The largest part of a fare rule addresses penalties and policies for changes and cancellation.)
Notice how in part 2 (“DAY/TIME”) it states that travel is permitted on Tuesdays/Wednesdays/Saturdays. That little condition means that if you were looking at flights between Sacramento and Chicago for Monday, 12 October, you would not see this fare at United.com, Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, or if you called United or a travel agent, because the rules of the fare confine it to travel these three days of the week and 12 October is not one of those three days.
The rules of a fare govern exactly what you can and cannot do with it. In the rules (mostly) lurk some of the interesting things about airline fares that may allow you to do more than you thought possible. But we’ll get to those in due time.
In our next installment – Airline Fare School # 2, The Basics, part 2 – we’ll explore the twisted world of airline fare routings.
(Link to Introduction to Airline Fare School)
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