If you’re flying from Charlotte to Vancouver at the end of August, you’ll pay $1,500 on US Airways and $877 on its merger partner, American Airlines.
The twist? It’s the same flight, on the same plane. The only difference is which carrier’s website you use to book your ticket.
That’s because even though the airlines merged in December and now sell tickets on each other’s flights, they haven’t yet merged their reservation systems. Because of lags in the computer systems used to display ticket prices, the same flight can appear for hundreds of dollars more or less, depending on whether you search USAirways.com or AA.com.
“You’ll see these discrepancies,” said Don Casey, American’s vice president of revenue management. “It’s not because we’re attempting to trick people into buying higher fares.”
In a spot check of 25 random flights this week from Charlotte Douglas on both the American and US Airways websites, the Observer found fares differed by at least $5 on 16 of the routes.
In 11 cases, the differences amounted to more than $100, with two fares being close to twice as expensive on one airline’s website.
American Airlines – flying as US Airways – is by far the biggest carrier at Charlotte Douglas, accounting for more than 90 percent of flights at the airport. The longtime dominance of US Airways at Charlotte means many travelers might be used to just checking USAirways.com.
“Many people instinctively search on airline sites directly, but in this case that’s the worst option until the two airlines fully merge,” said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. Many people mistakenly believe that the airlines reserve their best deals for their own websites, Hobica said.
His solution: Price your trip on a third-party website such as Kayak.com or Orbitz.com, which will find the lowest fare across all carriers.
Discrepancies on many types of flights
In the Observer’s random fare survey, price differences popped up on long-haul flights, hub-to-hub travel and flights to smaller markets, even when booking the exact same flights: For example:
Out of the 25 routes surveyed by the Observer, airfares were within $5 of both carriers’ websites for nine of the routes. For example, both US Airways and American offered a $441 round-trip fare to New York’s LaGuardia Airport next Monday, and both priced tickets at $1,526 for a round trip from Charlotte to Paris in mid-August.
What if you book a flight on one of the carriers’ websites, then notice the same flight is cheaper on the other airline’s site? For most reservations, you can cancel within 24 hours for a full refund and no fee or penalty, according to U.S. Department of Transportation rules.
Complex causes, different prices
The reason behind the price discrepancies is a combination of technological challenges, the work that comes with merging two large airlines and the complex system of pricing and selling airline tickets.
US Airways and American started selling tickets on each others’ flights in January, in what is known as a code-share. That means the airlines put each other’s “code,” or flight number, on their flights, allowing a passenger to seamlessly book a single itinerary through either airline, as if they were one.
But the airlines still have separate reservation systems, and will effectively operate as separate airlines until those systems are combined. That won’t happen until sometime next year.
So for now, American and US Airways are treated in computer systems as separate airlines selling seats on each others’ planes. The inventory of code-share tickets for each airline aren’t updated in real-time, said American’s Casey.
If you’re looking at a US Airways flight on American’s website, you might see a different price compared to the same tickets on US Airways’ site, because the computer systems are looking at different inventory levels and see different levels of demand and availability.
“You’re always going to find discrepancies driven by this estimated availability,” said Casey.
Resolving the price discrepancies would require “global distribution systems” – the intermediaries that book and sell tickets – have real-time access to the data underlying the code-share flights.
“It’s a technically challenging thing to do,” said Casey. Resolving ticket price discrepancies is one of the merged carrier’s top priorities, Casey said.
The same pricing discrepancies exist to some extent in all code-sharing arrangements between different airlines. But it’s more apparent on American and US Airways right now because of how vast the code-share arrangement is, covering thousands of flights.
The issue is expected to be solved when American and US Airways combine reservation systems sometime next year. Casey said one question is how much American should invest in fixing a problem that, hopefully, already has an expiration date.
Combining reservation systems – which are typically decades-old computer systems that must handle millions of pieces of data every day – is considered the trickiest part of an airline merger. American and US Airways are using systems that are about 30 years old, said Scott Chandler, a revenue management executive with American.
Combining reservation systems has led to problems before. In 2007, US Airways infuriated passengers when flight delays and long lines plagued airports its reservations system crashed following the company’s merger with America West. And United Continental was dogged with reservation system problems in the years after its 2010 merger.
Meanwhile, for those booking flights on the American or US Airways websites, Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, has a simple piece of advice.
“While this merger’s going on, I would shop both sites,” said Seaney. “If you see those discrepancies, buy it on the other one.”