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That fare you see may not be the fare you get

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WOULD you tolerate a department store that raised the price on a sweater between the time you picked it off the rack and the moment you paid for it? Not likely.

Yet something similar sometimes happens when shopping for airfares at third-party travel websites such as Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity, according to several recent studies from Consumer Reports WebWatch, a project of the nonprofit Consumers Union based in Yonkers, N.Y.

"What we see is shoppers are being advertised a price that's not available," said William J. McGee, consultant to Consumer Reports WebWatch. "There is no other place in the market where that's acceptable."

The phenomenon is called "fare jumping," and it occurs when an airfare changes price (usually an increase) during the online purchase process. According to a WebWatch study released last fall, airfares on Orbitz increased 21% of the time and decreased 5% of the time. Orbitz declined to comment for this story.

The problem was less pronounced at Orbitz's largest competitors, the study showed. Expedia showed an increase 5% of the time and a decrease 2%; Travelocity fares increased 1% of the time and decreased 1%.

Fares can change quickly because the lowest fares are sold in limited quantities. The fare you see one moment may be bought out the next by another shopper, said Kari Swartz, a spokeswoman for Expedia.

"If a confirmed shopper is further along in the search, then that seat's no longer available for us to sell," Swartz said.

Current technology doesn't allow checking every possible airfare combination and holding every one of those fares while the customer decides whether to purchase the ticket.

"Online agencies connect, for the most part, to the airlines through an intermediary," said Jared Blank, an analyst for New York-based Online Travel Review, which publishes travel industry updates. The most efficient way for the intermediary to perform is to store fare data and update them regularly. When a consumer says, "Yes, sell me that ticket," the online agencies query the airline sites directly to confirm real-time availability.

"There is a time lag," Blank said. "The [intermediary] is not passing on information to you in real time."

To address the problem, the third-party agencies have added warnings when a fare changes during the booking process. That's important because the difference can be as little as $5 or $10, which consumers may miss.

Fare jumping does not appear to be an issue on the airlines' own websites, according to WebWatch, which found no instances of it there: "Going directly to an airline site [would] be the best bet because they connect directly to the airline's reservation system," Blank said.

Expedia and Travelocity disagreed that fares were more stable on the airlines' sites.

"The number of test queries was dramatically skewed with [WebWatch's] findings, with only 36 trials evaluating the supplier sites versus 144 trials evaluating the third-party sites like Expedia," Swartz said.

If it does happen on an airline site, a consumer's choices are limited to that airline's inventory, so third-party sites may give consumers an advantage.

"Unlike the airline website, we may very well be able to find that customer the same fare on another airline," said Travelocity spokesman Joel Frey.

Travelocity has tried to give consumers a heads-up that a fare might be vulnerable to change. It provides a note next to a fare when three or fewer seats are available so consumers know they must act quickly.

By JAMES GILDEN
The Los Angeles Times

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