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X-issue: 15.02
Date: Thu, 2 Sep 93 20:22:54 -0700
From: Mark Seecof <>
Subject: BETTER airline/travel-agent computer hide-and-seek

On page B-1 of the Wall Street Journal, 1 Sep 93 a story headlined "Fliers
find scarcity of choice seats" by James Hirsch describes how major airlines
are now manipulating seat assignments in coach class to favor frequent flyers
and full- fare passengers.  They manage this through their computer
reservation systems (CRS's).  Some travel agents are struggling to get good
seats for their disfavored clients by fooling the CRS's or even by using other
computers to poll CRS's looking for "openings" to reassign better seats to
their clients.

[What follows is Seecof's appreciation of the story, not quotation; errors and
opinions belong to Seecof.]

Airlines used to give out coach seats on a first-come-first-served basis.
Other classes of ticket (1st, business) got different, better seating.  But
not all coach seats are equal in flyers' eyes: people prefer aisle or window
seats near the front of the cabin.  Airlines in search of ways to
differentiate their service are now giving "full-coach" (fare) and
very-frequent-flyer passengers the better seats.  However, they have not
announced their policy to the public.  Instead, people holding low-fare
tickets who request seat assignments are told that the good seats are already
taken--and are offered less desirable seating.  Depending on how the message
is phrased, it comes across as baffling ("the seats are unavailable") or
misleading ("the seats are already assigned").  Travel agents can figure out
which seats are really assigned by testing different sample data against the
seat assignment algorithm for each flight in a CRS... if an agent tries to
seat a passenger on a cheap ticket and is told that only middle seats at the
rear are available, he can attempt to reserve seats for a hypothetical
full-fare passenger to see which seats will be available to such a flyer.
According to Hirsch, many airlines "free up" unfilled-but-restricted better
seats as departure time approaches so that late-booking flyers can get seat

According to the WSJ, some travel agents are retaining the frequent-flyer ID's
of favored passengers and using those to reserve seats for less favored
flyers.  Agents also apply other schemes--including booking a flight on a
full-fare ticket, then later revising the reservation to a lower-fare ticket.
Associated Travel Management, of Santa Ana, Calif. is said to use a
proprietary computer system which monitors the availability of seats for
specified flights and passengers by polling a CRS--when a "better" seat
"becomes available" the system requests it for the client passenger.  A client
may have his seat changed many times without human intervention as the system
grabs seats grudgingly offered by the CRS.  The WSJ says the airlines don't
like travel agencies bucking airline seat assignment algorithms.

This is fascinating.  Leaving aside the irritating deception practiced by the
the airlines (they avoid telling low-fare passengers *why* they can't get good
seats), the seat-assignment algorithms are perfectly rational--you want a good
seat, you gotta pay more.  (You may wonder why the airlines don't break out
the price of better seats--just charge 5% more for good seats.  I think it's
'cause they don't want to give full-fare passengers discounts for bad seats.
When a 'plane is full even favored passengers can be assigned bad seats--if
the seat price differential were explicit on the up-side, those flyers would
demand reciprocal discounts on the down-side.)  The travel agents' tactics are
also rational--the CRS gives good seats to reservations with certain
qualities...  then tell the CRS what it wants to hear!  But the travel
agencies are forced into either deceiving the CRS on behalf of flyers (by
falsely claiming that the flyer will pay full fare, or is a very frequent
flyer), or using computers of their own to tussle with the CRS for seats.  If
agencies other than Assoc.  Travel Mgmt. start to use similar systems to try
and get good seats for their clients, seat assignments could become a kind of
lottery.  With many agent systems polling a CRS looking for a seat, when they
all try to pounce on one at the same time it'll be chancy which transaction
gets through.

I see two risks arising from the way airlines and travel agents are exploiting
computers to complicate seat assignment.  The first is, that travel agents and
flyers generally are being taught to lie to the CRS's.  That is, a premium has
been placed on falsifying input data to the computer.  Now, people gain
economic advantage by lying all the time.  But in this case they are lying at
low or zero (depending on the exact tactics they adopt) risk and in a
situation where their conscience does not bite.  Before computers, you had to
lie to a human being and unless you were a sociopath you probably felt guilty
about it.  Now a computer has been programmed to implement a sufficiently
harsh seating regime that you feel prompted to lie your way past it
(especially since the airlines are lying to you about the price differential
for good seats--because they don't want to discount bad ones), and you are not
likely to feel any guilt over lying to a computer, a mere machine, albeit
there are human consequences downstream--those are very remote.  The effect of
lying to the machine is GIGO--you provide bad input, the machine provides bad
output.  Airlines will find that their revenue estimates are wrong, because
many full-fare bookings will be mere subterfuges to obtain good seats, and
so-on down the line.  To avoid this, airlines will design and implement
complex, costly, and likely quite punitive algorithms to validate input more
effectively.  This will prompt even more sophisticated schemes to evade those
algorithms, likely by more subtle input data distortion...

The second risk is that only flyers using agents with systems designed to beat
on a CRS until it coughs up a desired seat will get good seats.  This will
harm flyers without such agents, and prompt the development of more such
polling systems.  As that in turn loads down CRS's they will cost more to run,
and unless they are reprogrammed, seat assignment will become like a lottery;
which many flyers will think less fair than either first-come-first-served or
pay-more get-more.  Either way, costs will be passed on to flyers whether or
not they use agents with fancy CRS-pounding systems.

In the final analysis it might be cheaper for airlines and flyers both to use
a simple seat-assignment scheme with more perceived fairness and skip the
whole computer arms race.

Mark Seecof <>

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