OPINION: Airlines always win in the game of booking roulette

Vincent Wall on the stresses of looking for a deal online...

OPINION: Airlines always win in the game of booking roulette

Chris Ison / PA

I think I’ve had a minor Eureka moment for a new app, though I’m pretty certain that some geek, and one probably sitting pretty close to me at that, is going to tell me it’s already been done.

Anyway, in common with a lot of people, no longer tethered by their children or just simply looking for some shoulder season value, I spent an evening this week trying to book two airline tickets to a southern European destination for late September.

Forget shoulder season by the way... Our two beloved home-based carriers are charging fairly fruity fares to that destination that week.. Perhaps word has got out that we plan to go there, understandably pushing demand higher, or perhaps our higher national disposable income is lengthening the peak holiday season. Whatever.

That’s not my beef on this particular occasion nor the source of my low wattage light bulb moment.

It’s that in clicking for the lowest fares available, I was immediately informed there were very few seats available at that particular fare.

Both beloved home-based airlines informed me of the same supply/demand dilemma. And, in doing so, both effectively warned me that unless I pushed that button immediately I could forget about getting where I wanted to go, if I wanted to fly directly from Dublin and at a relatively reasonable price. Both also informed me of course that here were additional more flexibly-priced seats available elsewhere on the aircraft.

Since then I have discovered that many other people have also been confronted by this fast-disappearing seat crisis, just as they look for flights, and sometimes even in mid-November.

Time v Money

I’m aware of course that airlines everywhere have been using the dark arts of yield management for many years whereby seats are priced on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis, depending on demand.

But given that context, how does the poor punter know whether there really are just two seats remaining at the most reasonably-priced option; or that having booked them in light of this pressure, his neighbour or friend or colleague won’t find the same two lowest-priced seats still available  a few days later when she goes to book the same flight?

He can’t on both fronts....and the house will always win in this game of booking roulette.

Hang on, you may cry, don’t the same circumstances apply to many fast-moving consumer goods? How about, for instance, the purveyors of such essential items as bath towels and garden implements and their much-admired “When they’re gone, they’re gone” category of radio advertisement.

Well, in the case of most other goods whose price is yield-managed, the consumer can either decide to shop elsewhere or simply wait: after all the question of whether a few euro is saved on those fantastic new bath towels or whether they’re purchased this week or next month is unlikely to cause stress in most rational households.

But airline tickets, particularly those purchased for an annual holiday, are different.  They represent a significant investment for most people both emotionally and financially; generally speaking, the prospective holidaymakers’ travel time is fixed and so postponement is not feasible; and frequently there are few alternative transport options available to get off this island.

So, I would like to challenge my geek friends in their attics or basements to develop an app that tracks and traces the seat availability statements of various airlines across their range of pricing levels over time: an app that not only compares the competitive offers available – I appreciate that’s already been done – but that calls out or even screams out when fibs are being told about seat availability at specific price levels. I would further challenge them to focus their initial efforts on our two beloved home-based airlines.

I won’t even look for a cut of their revenues.