Anyone who has booked a seat on an airplane recently has probably hung up the phone wondering, "Gee, did I really get the lowest airfare?"
As consumers plan winter get-aways and summer vacations, "shop around" is sound advice. Just ask the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) in Washington. In late November, the group's consumer team decided to conduct a little experiment: Call travel agents and airlines and ask for the "lowest airfare" for the same round trips.
Specifically, on the same day they called 325 travel agents and airlines across the country; they asked for the lowest fare on 23 round trips for one person on decided-on departure and arrival days (see chart). Instead of 23 similar quotes, they received 180 different quotes. In some cases, quotes for identical trips varied by more than $1,000.
"People who ask travel agents for the lowest priced ticket may be paying higher unfair fares," says Janice Shields, consumer research director for USPIRG. "You have to keep asking again and again, 'Is that the lowest fare?' " Researchers found that the lowest fares were obtained more often from travel agents than from the airlines directly.
All this may not be surprising to frequent fliers. The survey reinforces what smart travelers and travel agents already know, says Mike Spinelli, chief of American Society of Travel Agents.
At issue is the ever-changing nature of airline ticketing policies and the persistent work that travel agents must do to get low prices. Typically, airlines allocate a certain number of so-called lower-priced seats, but there's no telling how many or how long they stay that way.
Dave Fuscus, spokesman for the Air Transport Association (ATA), explains that "it really is a supply-and-demand situation. The system is enormously complex," and naturally, it is designed to sell seats.
Mr. Spinelli refers to the process as "yield management" of "a highly perishable product." For consumers, that means continual fare changes minute by minute - as many as 100,000 a day.
"Welcome to the travel industry," quips Stephanie Abrams, vice president of Travel Network, a global chain of travel agencies headquartered in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
"There are those of us who take a nostalgic look to the past to easier, simpler times," Ms. Abrams says, referring to pre-deregulation. The way things are now, a travel agent could make a reservation for you to go to Europe 25 weeks in advance, and then if a friend decides to join you at the last minute, he could book just two weeks ahead and get a better fare.
Travel agents earn commission from the airlines, determined as a percentage of the price of each ticket they sell. In 1995, Delta Airlines capped commissions they pay agents at $50 per round trip ticket (domestic). Some airlines followed suit, while others, such as TWA and America West, continue to pay uncapped commissions of 10 percent.
To be fair, USPIRG's study is a little problematic, Abrams says. If researchers are cold-calling and the educated travel agent detects that the person on the other end of the phone doesn't plan on booking, much less becoming a repeat customer, the attitude might be, "All you're going to do is take up time I could be devoting to a loyal customer."
"We want to deal with serious people," Abrams says. "We have a very time- and labor-intensive business."
Sometimes people forget that airlines are businesses, says Mr. Fuscus of ATA. Their goal is to turn a profit, and competition in the US is "hypercompetitive."
Still, for the consumer, it's frustrating, says Janice Shields. USPIRG is encouraging lawmakers and regulators to evaluate ticketing practices.
Most consumers interviewed for this story say that current practices allow for more bargains. However, many heave a heavy sigh when they talk of the ticket-buying process. The legwork can be overwhelming with restrictions, frequent-flier programs, fare wars, promotions, and more.
Then, there are people like Tom Parsons. "If you don't like the fares today, stick around, they'll change," says Mr. Parsons, editor of Best Fares magazine, based in Dallas, and a consumer advocate once described by Larry King as "the man the airlines love to hate." Armed with a new book, "Insider Travel Secrets," (Heritage Publishing, 1996) and Web page (www.bestfares.com), Parsons is on a mission to help travelers fly on the cheap.
Parsons rattles off several coupon offers. Many people, for example, don't think of flying into an "alternate" city, like Baltimore instead of Washington, or Newark, N.J., instead of New York. That can save a lot, he adds.
The Internet, Parsons says, is a good place to do comparative shopping. But the bottom line, he says, is you have to use a good travel agent - or two - and research on your own.