The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) is taking Flight Centre to court, alleging it tried to get airlines to ensure that prices quoted on their sites didn't beat what it was offering. Whatever the outcome, it's a reminder that booking directly via airlines is almost always the best way to score cheap fares.
Picture by lukasbenc
The ACCC alleges that over a four year period Flight Centre sought to ensure that it would not lose commissions through competition from online sales:
The ACCC alleges that, on six occasions between 2005 and 2009, Flight Centre attempted to induce international airlines Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines and Emirates to agree to stop directly offering and booking their own international airfares (including over the internet) at prices less than Flight Centre offered.
Flight Centre is defending the case, which won't hit court until April 13.
Flight Centre offers a flight guarantee deal where it will match fares found online. That's a good way of trying to reduce the loss of customers to the web, but makes for an unprofitable business if selling at those fares effectively eliminates its commission (which is part of the fare it quotes to customers). For any travel agent, trying to undercut the cheapest fares offered by airlines on their sites is a tricky task, which is why buying direct from airlines usually results in the lowest fare.
While going direct makes sense when you have a simple return flight in mind, using a travel agent is still a good idea in some circumstances. When booking round-the-world tickets, for instance, I've always found travel agents can dig up better deals than airlines, which often lack flexibility when planning routes if they even offer the option at all. But when that happens, I'll have a planned list of preferred routes and maximum acceptable prices before I go to the agent. For more hints on how to score flights cheaply, check out our 10 best tactics for scoring cheap flights.
Ensuring competition in air fares has been an area of increasing focus for the ACCC. In its most recent action, it took Air Asia to court over misleading prices. It has also strictly enforced rules requiring full fares to be disclosed in advertising, and taken both Qantas and Tiger to task over refund conditions when flights are disrupted.