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Researchers Find Little Truth Behind Plane Ticket Hacks

Many of the common hacks people say drive down plane ticket prices—buy on a Tuesday! search in incognito mode!—apparently have no legs. A new study finds that US airlines have a pretty rigid pricing structure that doesn’t change based on day of the week or a user’s browser history, says IFL Science. “There are so many hacks out there for finding cheaper airline tickets,” says Olivia Natan, an author on the paper. “But our data shows many of these beliefs are wrong.” The paper, published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, looked at how a major US airline priced flights. It used the same system that’s used globally by airlines, which has little wiggle room for real-time changes based on demand and competition.

A release about the study from Haas School of Business, where Natan is an associate professor, likens the pricing structure to buying jam. If the price of strawberry jam increases, consumers might switch over to a cheaper raspberry flavor, even if it’s not their first choice. The same scenario could work on airlines. If the price of one flight is high, customers might pick a less convenient flight in order to pay less. “But airlines don’t consider this kind of substitution,” Natan says, noting that they focus on flights individually rather than how competition might affect what’s sold in a day, “even though changing the price on one flight will affect the way people think about all their options.”

The study found that airlines don’t take competitor prices into account, locking in a sliding scale in the cost of tickets sold in different classes. “Airline tickets are sold through global distribution systems that make sure a travel agent in Wichita sees the same price as you do on your computer at home,” Natan said, which puts everyone on a level playing field, but also lacks flexibility. So was there any wisdom found in how to fly cheaper? “What I can say is that prices do go up significantly 21, 14, and 7 days before a flight,” Natan said. “Just buy your ticket before then.” (Read more airline stories.)


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