Monday, May 24, 2010

Airline price fixing in the Middle East? ...Surely not!

It’s that time of the year when thoughts turn to summer holidays, or in our case, winter holidays in NZ. And without fail, it's the yearly (or 2-yearly) battle with travel agents and airlines to get suitable flights at a suitable price from the Gulf to NZ. The one advantage with my current employer is that they pay business class flights for self and family once a year to my home country - of that fact, I can't complain!

I used to think that the travel agent’s were intellectually challenged when it came to trying to book flights, but each year it has become obvious that it is not just their fault that makes it so difficult to book flights, but something more sinister about the system they have to work with. I smell a rat… Why, when a travel agent, any travel agent, tries to book flights from Bahrain to NZ, the only viable option seems to be Cathay Pacific?

Only Emirates, and now very recently, Etihad, will allow travelers from Bahrain to NZ to book tickets online (though given the difficulties in the past with online bookings, that may be smoke and mirrors, and it maybe that you can’t actually book and pay online… I don’t know, I haven’t tried….yet). Emirates prices are so outrageous though that again you are forced on price anyway to take the Cathay route… via the Travel Agent (plus Emirates flight times suck!).

Over the years, in Bahrain and Kuwait, we have routinely put up with reservations being cancelled by Agents without warning, sometimes leading to re-bookings at higher prices and non-ideal dates, or being forced to make reservations for several different tickets with different Agents in the hope that one Agent/Airline will be able to confirm waitlisted bookings… and this is often 6-8 months in advance. One year we persevered with Thai Airways (and Kanoo Travel) to get tickets to NZ via Bangkok so we could have a stopover holiday, but we were on a waitlist for one of the legs for over 6 months. Last year they refused to let us pay for tickets as prices hadn’t been released by Thai Airways even a few weeks before the flight!!

So, roll around this year…

Prices for bookings via Travel Agent – 1 adult business class to N.Z. return:

Cathay Pacific BHD 1,485
Thai Airways BHD 2,331
Singapore Airways booked out for all the dates I want apparently
Emirates BHD 2,670
Etihad BHD 2,175

Etihad online price if I book myself = BHD 823. Yes, that’s right… if I avoid the travel agent I can buy tickets myself for almost a third of the price.

Either the airlines, or the agents appear to be artificially inflating prices to ensure business goes to Cathay Pacific on this route to NZ. It makes no sense for the other airlines to have exorbitant prices if they want custom, but it does make sense for the travel agents if Cathay is paying them better commissions… If customers realise they can now book online with Etihad (assuming the online booking system works), then this could be a breaking of the cartel on this route. But then, as in my current situation, most companies prefer to book flights for their employees themselves, and continue to prop up the cartel system.

Wouldn't it be nice if my employer would just give me the cash for business class flights instead!

UPDATE 26 May 2010: Yeah, should have known... Etihad website shows timetable for flights to NZ, but when I try to book any flight it then says unable to book flights for those dates, no matter which date you enter...

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