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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Air Fares, Classes of Service, and Ticketing Rules

Trying to understand all the different fares offered by the nation's airlines is a daunting task. That's because the major carriers have created fare schedules every bit as complex as the federal tax code. So many different fares are available it's unlikely that any two passengers on a given flight will pay the same price for their tickets.


Airlines determine fare pricing based on a number of factors, such as the number of seats in each fare category, reservation time periods, competitor pricing on similar flights, and the type of consumers using a particular flight. Computer-assisted revenue management systems are used to examine historical demand to establish the number of seats made available for sale at various fares. Analysts then monitor each flight to adjust seat allocations and fares accordingly.

That said, there are really only four types of fares—although these fares are constantly being adjusted by the airlines' revenue management systems. These fare types include

  • Unrestricted—These fares have no or limited restrictions on getting refunds on cancelled flights or making changes to your original itinerary. Because they allow the greatest flexibility (and sometimes offer other perks), these are the highest priced fares on any given flight and the benchmark from which other fares are discounted. They are often referred to as "walk-up" fares.

  • Restricted—These fares have advance purchase requirements, restrictions on the use of the ticket, and penalties for changes to the original ticket. Because they limit your travel and reservation options and impose penalties for change, these tickets are sold at a discount to unrestricted fares on the same flight. Discount fares typically have advance purchase requirements of 3, 7, 14, or 21 days; Saturday night stay requirements; and minimum or maximum stay restrictions. (See page 30 for a list of change fees charged by the airlines.)

  • Capacity controlled—These fares, offered by discount carriers, such as ATA and Frontier, are created when an airline sets aside a limited number of seats at a specific price. So, although you may not have to purchase the ticket a set number of days in advance, the fare might not be available if you wait too long to make your purchase. This is also a common practice used to book flights using frequent flyer miles.

  • Internet-only—These are discounted restricted fares only available for purchase from the airline's Web site. To encourage you to book directly with them online, airlines may promise that their lowest fares are available only on the their Web sites.

Just because you purchase a ticket well in advance does not guarantee you the lowest price; airlines often lower their fares midstream. This is why the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division recommends that you keep checking your fare after you buy your ticket. If your fare goes down, the airline may refund the difference—but only if you ask.

A new trend in the industry is to announce new lower unrestricted fares—a way of reducing prices for business travelers without changing the underlying fare schedule. Airlines are also introducing lower one-way "walk-up" fares, for tickets purchased on the day of the flight. Overall, the general consensus is that given the growth of low-fare carriers, fares for business travelers are getting lower.

For information on monthly airfares charged by the major U.S. airlines, view the Monthly Airfare Report on the ATA's Customers First Web site (http://www.customers-first.org).

Classes of Service

There are four fare classes of service—first, business, economy plus, and economy/coach. Most of the major carriers offer at least two classes of service on their flights. Low-fare and regional carriers may only sell coach class. Some low-fare carriers, such as AirTran, only sell one-way tickets, which is important to keep in mind if you are booking your flight online.

Rights, Rules, and Promises

When you purchase an airline ticket you are agreeing to the airline's Conditions of Carriage. This is a legally binding document that details the services the airline is required to offer and the rules to which you are required to adhere. This detailed and complicated document covers everything from ticket validity, baggage, wait lists, flight delays and cancellations, refunds, and rerouting. You will find it on the inside cover of your ticket jacket.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division (http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov) is the government organization responsible for receiving consumer complaints. This organization does a good job of simplifying air travel rights in its publication, Flight-Rights, A Consumers Guide to Air Travel. This document is available on their web site

In September 1999, the 14 largest U.S. airlines—all members of the Air Transport Association—released customer service plans that describe new customer service "commitments." The prototype plan has 11 points describing the practices airlines promise, but are not legally obligated, to follow. You can find this document at the ATA's Customers First Web site (http://www.customers-first.org).

Each airline has its own version of this document. The following summarizes some key points common to these plans:

  • Allow customers 24 hours from initial reservation to change travel plans without penalty.

  • Offer the lowest fare for which the customer is eligible.

  • Provide food, water, restrooms, and medical treatment for passengers on board a grounded aircraft.

  • Disclose to passengers on request whether a flight is overbooked.

  • Give accurate and timely information on flight delays and cancellations.

  • Provide on-time baggage delivery.

  • Provide information and policies about oversold flights.

Ticket Validity

In general, your ticket is valid for travel only when used in accordance with all terms and conditions of sale outlined in the Conditions of Carriage. Your ticket is invalid if any of the following conditions apply:

  • The ticket is used for travel to a destination other than that specified on the ticket.

  • You fail to comply with applicable stay-over requirements.

  • You do not meet the purpose or status requirement associated with the fare category on the ticket.

  • The airline determines that the ticket has been purchased or used in a manner designed to circumvent applicable fare rules.

Many travelers, however, have figured out how to purchase restricted tickets but avoid the restrictions. So airlines specifically prohibit the following practices:

  • Back-to-back ticketing—The combination of two or more round-trip restricted fares end-to-end for the purpose of circumventing minimum stay requirements.

  • Throwaway ticketing—The use of a round-trip excursion fare for one-way travel.

  • Hidden city/point beyond ticketing—The purchase of a fare from a point before the passenger's actual origin or to a point beyond the passenger's actual destination.

If you break the rules, the airline has the right to do any or all of the following:

  • Cancel any remaining portion of the itinerary.

  • Confiscate unused flight coupons.

  • Refuse to let you board or check your luggage.

  • Charge you for the remaining value of the ticket, which is no less than the difference between the fare actually paid and the lowest fare applicable to your actual itinerary.

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