For the past decade, airlines have shared a wholly unofficial motto: "Never be a dollar more or less than the competition."
If you don't know what it means, you should, since you're responsible for it; you and everyone else who flies. And if you don't understand the motto, you could be overpaying every time you buy an airline ticket.
What difference can a dollar make to an airline? Possibly the difference between solvency and flying emptier planes -- or at least planes that aren't as packed as their owners like them. Years ago, this dollar difference didn't matter so much; in fact, a difference in airfare prices of $10, $20 or sometimes even hundreds wasn't such a big deal. You called your favorite airline, or relied on a travel agent who knew what you wanted, and paid the asking price. Then along came the Internet.
Airfare search sites helped revolutionize the air travel industry, because you could easily compare prices. Airlines were initially enthused about these new direct-to-consumer shopping channels because it allowed them to cut the costs of human travel agents from the food chain but carriers did not foresee an unintended consequence of ubiquitous price comparison: the death of loyalty. Consumers happily embraced online price comparison and sold themselves to the lowest bidder, miles be damned.
Fast forward to the current era - the airline fee generation - where price comparison search sites called OTAs (for "online travel agencies") and METAs ("multiple site search") give airlines new headaches. In most cases, today's search sites don't give fliers access to the "extras" so dear to the hearts of airlines, and by extras I mean the money-makers like more legroom (for a fee) or early boarding (for a fee). You get the picture.
But where the dollar difference really matters is in the meat-and-potato section of today's sites: the actual airfare listings. I recently looked up roundtrip nonstop flights from LA to NY and saw listings for Continental, United and JetBlue, in that order, for $516. Alaska, with airfares for a buck more, made page two of the listings. And poor American, only five bucks higher (and that isn't much for a ticket that's already costing you over 500 bucks) didn't appear until page five.
It's pretty common knowledge that on a Google 10-pack display of search results, the most clicks go to the items in the number one spot, the number two spot - and the number ten spot. Ten? Yes. Chalk it up to human nature; we trust the top two picks and then we like to scroll down to the bottom whereupon we get bored and click the last on the list.
You tell me: would you look through page after page of identical airfares or pages that show airfares for a few bucks more - or would you buy the first airline ticket you see at the lowest price? Okay, maybe you'd look through a page or two to see if the carrier with your miles program is listed, but beyond that, many of us just don't filter results that much.
Now as to why there are so many identical prices, there's no mystery: airlines have a set of top markets or city-pairs that are their key money makers and they manage the prices of these routes closely. With the lesser routes, airlines just want to sell their fair share and that means being at what is called "competitive equilibrium"; in other words, they keep it close to show up on the first results page.
You see true matching just about any time one of the airlines has an airfare sale; typically, an airline announces a sale on a Monday evening (you see AirTran doing this a lot); then, that night and throughout much of the next day, other airlines with overlapping routes match the sale prices. This is why one of my favorite rules for consumers is, "Shop for airfare on Tuesday afternoons "; it's when you'll see the most airlines with the best prices.
So let's say three airlines have the same price; how does an OTA decide which is listed first?
It's a big deal, since he-who-is-first may garner the most sales. If any of you out there can recall the pre-historic practice of consulting the Yellow Pages, you'll remember seeing AAA Plumbing leading the pack when you needed a drain surgeon.
The same can be true with OTAs and airline listings today, but note that alphabetizing is done, not necessarily by name, but by airline code. Some are logical: American Airlines is AA and United is UA. Others are a bit more mystifying: Virgin America is VX; Southwest is WN; JetBlue is B6 and AirTran is FL (but if you think these are loony, you have to check out my column on airport codes; some of those designations are literally fall-on-the-floor funny).
So AA always leads the pack and US Airways (US) brings up the rear with AirTran somewhere in between, right? Uh, not necessarily. For one thing, not every OTA follows alphabetical order; for another, some push certain airlines to the forefront of their listings because they may make more money off them (this difference in margin could depend on individual contracts).
Other reasons: a search site may prefer a completely random approach, or there may be some feuding going on; a prime example of the latter is American's decision to pull out of Orbitz, and the airline's recent spat with Expedia (though AA and Expedia recently kissed and made up).
What all this boils down to is, it matters where you shop for airfare, and how you shop, especially in the "fee generation." For instance, if you like to check a bag, you'll have to leave your OTA to go to Southwest.com and see what airfare the "two free bags" carrier offers since it only lists prices on its own website. Or, you'll want to remember that JetBlue gives you a free checked bag when you consider prices on an OTA.
In other words, you have to shop smarter than ever, keeping those fingers flying and that mouse on the move, to always get the very best deals possible. And remember that the best deal for you just might be on page 10.
More From Rick Seaney:
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.