Confessions of an Airline Revenue Manager

Every airline employs a cadre of revenue managers. These are the folks who adjust airfares throughout the day, depending on route, season, demand, supply, and other factors. They’re a notoriously tight-lipped bunch, but, on condition of anonymity, we got one to explain how the fare game works.

Is there a best time of the day or best day of the week to buy airline tickets?

"No. We constantly read stories from pundits who proclaim that Tuesday nights are the best or Saturday at midnight is the lowest time for airfares, but that is not entirely true. Each airline loads fares at different times of the day every day. To say that there is one time of the day or one day of the week that is better than another is false. Plus, fares are so dynamic since they are based on market conditions and the actual number of passengers who are currently booked on a specific flight that they can change rapidly at any time. Many airlines tend to announce sales on a Monday leading other airlines to match certain fares the following day, but this is not a hard and fast rule. It truly varies from airline to airline."

What is your role as a revenue manager?

"Each airline has a complex computer system based on algorithms that can maximize the profit on each flight based on the types of fares offered on that specific flight. On one flight, there could be as many as two dozen different fares based on different factors such as advance or how many days you stay at the destination. The computer knows that, by releasing (for example) five seats at a very low price, ten seats at a slightly higher price, and twenty seats at a slightly higher price, it can maximize revenue as the flight fills up. On a full flight, we no longer want to offer that el-cheapo fare because it is based on supply and demand. The computer adjusts fares all the way up until the departure time, but as a revenue manager, I can go in and adjust things based on information that the computer may not know. For example, are there specific events taking place at a destination? Are there certain conditions at the departure airport that will allow more than the desired amount of seats to go empty such as weather?"

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Do ticket prices really change four times a day?

"Yes and no. Some of them change that often especially on high-trafficked routes, but most of the time you will see the same fares for a few days unless they sell out. The biggest changes happen at 21 days, 14 days, 10 days, 7 days, and 4 days typically when advance purchase restrictions knock fares up a notch. Domestic fares can change four times a day. International fares can change hourly, but again will not adjust that often unless there is a lot of traffic on that specific route. The majority of fare changes happen because people are purchasing up inventory or the advance purchase restrictions are kicking in."

Why is it that sometimes I can wait until the last minute and find a cheap fare, but other times the fare goes up?

"Well, most of the time the fare will go up because the flight will be filling up or the advance purchase restrictions will be kicking in. But on routes with significant competition, New York-LA for example, airlines may have sales or 'dump seats' at the last minute to fill the plane if it's not particularly full. It also depends on the day of the week. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are often the cheapest days to fly because we carry fewer business passengers those days."

Why do airlines advertise sales and then I can never find the tickets available at the stated price?

"When an airline puts seats on sale, not every item in the store is for sale. Just a percentage. Plus, not every flight on a given route may offer seats for sale. A popular 6 p.m. flight may not have anything on sale since people are willing to pay full price for it whereasthe early bird 5 a.m. flight may have more seats on sale. When airfares go down, jump on it. The limited capacity of seats will dwindle as time passes."

Why are there so few award seats out there? Each time I try to use my miles, I cannot.

"This is really a false assumption. There are a lot of award seats out there. We often give away 10-15% of our seats as award seats.  We are operating a business, and our shareholders would not like it if we passed up on top-line revenue. If you are flexible with dates or flight times, there are lots of award seats out there. If a flight is not filling up as we may expect, we can open up award availability as the departure date approaches."

Who is more profitable to you: a connecting passenger or a nonstop passenger?

"Well that is a complicated question. Let’s say Jack is taking a nonstop flight from Miami to Los Angeles. He will probably pay a slightly higher fare to take that nonstop flight than Jill who is flying Miami to Los Angeles via Atlanta. So in that respect, he is more profitable. He also is easier to handle because the airline does not have to carry him on two flights, connect his bags, serve him drinks twice, handle him at our hub lounges, etc. However, in another example like Atlanta-Miami, it may be more profitable for us to carry someone from Los Angeles to Miami via Atlanta than carry them just from Atlanta to Miami where we have heavy competition and very discounted fares. You may think that is strange since Atlanta to Miami is a shorter flight.  It depends on competition and the length of the route."

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Follow Airfarewatchdog on Twitter @airfarewatchdog for late-breaking unadvertised airfare sales and air travel advice.