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Delta Pricing Glitch Sparks Concern Over Flight Searches

Delta Air Lines may have charged some frequent flyers higher airfares than other customers for almost three weeks because of a glitch, which has triggered questions about the complexity of flight searches.

Delta Airlines
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Delta Airlines

Reports surfaced last week from two business travelers who noticed prices on routes they were searching were different depending on whether or not they were logged into their Delta frequent flyer accounts. Prices were higher when logged in on Delta's website versus anonymous price searches without logging in.

On Friday, Delta offered a detailed explanation of the discrepancy. Although the problem has been solved, it brings into light the complexity of airline pricing.

Delta and other airlines use third-party companies such as Expedia , Orbitz and Google's ITA Software to deliver results, when customers search for flights. Those providers then search through the virtually limitless amount of flights, routes and fares for the queried origin and destination; and display the results to the customer on the airline's website.

Delta considered switching its search provider, so the company ran a side-by-side experiment withanother providerbeginning April 20, Bob Kupbens, the airline's head of e-commerce told The Associated Press. Delta declined to name either of the two search providers used.

Consumers who logged in with their frequent flyer number saw results from the airline's current search provider. Others who searched anonymously got results from the experimental provider. The problem was that one search engine included flight possibilities the other one didn't. The experiment ended on May 9.

Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, tells CNBC.com, "Delta knows that if it charges frequent flyers more, there would be a revolt." He added Delta is in the middle of renovating its website, including the flight shopping feature, which could have contributed to the glitch.

"We don't want to take all of our best customers, who we care the most about, and put them immediately onto a new search engine," Delta's Kupbens told the AP. Ultimately, he said, the airline hoped the switch in search companies would provide travelers with faster and more relevant search results.

Given there are so many possible combinations of flights and routings, it's not surprising to me such a discrepancy occurred during Delta's experiment. The results returned would simply depend on the algorithm programmed by the search provider. And I'm certain the algorithms used between companies differ in some way, as they're proprietary to each company.

I believe it's an honest explanation. What do you think? Should there be a uniform and consistent method to display all possible flight options and airfares?

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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