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POTENTIAL FOR BIAS IN COMPUTER AIR-FARE SEARCHES

Say you've asked one of those Internet "search engines" to find you the lowest air fare for a trip you're planning. And say the engine selected a flight on "Airline X" for its primary display.

Are you sure that Airline X got primary listing because it had the lowest fare, or was it there because Airline X had paid a fee to the Internet site operator? At present, you can't be sure. There's no guarantee that the site's operator hasn't rigged the search to favor one airline over another.

Government rules prohibit that sort of bias in the computer reservation systems that individual airlines run. But so far, those rules don't apply to third-party Internet travel sites that cover multiple airlines.

As far as I know, Darryl Jenkins of the Aviation Foundation was the first to recognize that gaping loophole. A few days ago, the foundation formally recommended that the Department of Transportation extend its anti-bias rulings to cover multi-airline sites as well as single-line systems. I heartily support that recommendation.

The Aviation Foundation's objective is to prevent possible future abuse, as the backup documentation in its submission to DOT indicates, not to correct an ongoing problem. Similarly, I've tested several of those umbrella search programs and, to date, have never detected bias.

Indeed, in one case I looked at, the system correctly identified a flight on a little known airline as the best deal: Had the system been biased against that line, few travelers would have ever known.

Nevertheless, the potential for abuse is there. Given the chance -- and absent effective regulation -- some airlines still aren't above playing games with computerized reservation system data. A travel agency in Europe, for instance, recently filed a complaint against an airline based there for allegedly listing some bargain fares in its own CRS but not giving those fares to the other systems, as it was supposed to do.

Third-party situations -- where someone other than the primary supplier displays that supplier's prices -- are especially difficult to regulate. As one current example, consider cruise advertising.

Earlier this year, Florida's attorney general negotiated settlements under which big cruise lines agreed not to hide part of the true price of a cruise in fine print, disguised as "port charges."

But those settlements apparently didn't prevent at least one cruise line from continuing the port-charge fiction in promotions issued through third parties -- in this case, airline frequent-flier programs.

While anti-bias regulation is desirable, consumers must expect most suppliers to evade disclosure requirements, if unfavorable, to the extent they can. After all, you wouldn't expect a sales agent in an electronics shop to disclose voluntarily that a competitor down the block charged less for a 25-inch TV set. Or to walk into a Hilton, ask the clerk for the cheapest room and have the clerk say, "The cheapest room is at the Holiday Inn across the street."

How can ordinary consumers avoid getting biased air fare information -- or at least recognize it when they see it? There's no easy answer. Going to a travel agency is still one good way to locate the lowest air fares. It's certainly much faster than contacting a bunch of airlines on your own, one by one, especially if you don't even know which airlines to ask.

But travel agencies, too, have their own potential for bias: Some of them have "preferred supplier" arrangements, under which they get better commissions from some airlines than others.

It's a cliche, I know, but it's still true: Your best defense against overpaying is to inform yourself of all options before you approach any source of air tickets -- Internet, travel agency or airline. And when you shop the Internet, I recommend that you check at least two "lowest fare" sources before accepting any deal.

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