Airline Ticket Purchase Timing

Feb 1, 2012 by

An organization called the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) released on January 17 the results of its research designed to answer a question pestering humankind almost since the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight: When is the best time to buy air travel tickets to get the lowest fare?

What’s the Airlines Reporting Corporation?

Being naturally suspicious, I looked into ARC. Perhaps, I thought, it’s a front group for the airlines tasked with inventing even more ways to extract money from air travellers. According to its website, “ARC is a premier provider of sales and settlement solutions for the travel and hospitality industry.” Premier—that’s a good word. The impenetrable rest of the sentence I could not satisfactorily decipher even after rooting around on the ARC’s site. But I gather the company sells products that airlines, among others, find useful. Then, on the About Us page, the smoking gun:

“ARC is an airline-owned company serving the travel industry with financial services, data products and services, ticket distribution, original travel solutions, and settlement in the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.”

So, while I relate the results of the ARC research below, in my mind they’re accompanied by a giant asterisk leading to a footnote reading: “Research paid for by parties with a big financial stake in the outcome.”

ARC Research Conclusions

The first paragraph of a press release publicizing the research summarizes the major finding:

“ARC announced today that based on research into the purchase price of airline tickets in 2011, airline passengers acquired the least expensive airfares six weeks in advance of their flights. At that point during any given 120-day advance purchase period throughout 2011, flyers paid 5.8 percent below the year’s average fare of $358.30. ARC determined this by examining close to $80 billion worth of ticket sales, spread across almost 144 million transactions, for flights with a U.S. origin and destination.”

Mr. Chuck Thackston, identified as ARC’s managing director of data and analytics, helpfully adds this:

“We’re not advising people to purchase tickets only at this time during the cycle as there is no guarantee they will receive the lowest price of the year; it is just what the data indicates and we have seen this pattern over the last four years.”

Seems ARC and Wall Street have the same disclaimer-writing attorney: “Past performance does not forecast future results. We’re just saying.”

According to ARC’s research, fare prices begin soaring about 14 days before the travel date. The average ticket price on the travel day is about $140 (40%) more than the average fare 14 days prior to the travel date. ARC also reports that the average 2011 ticket price for U.S. air travel was $368. Unstated is whether this includes additional fees for burdening the airline with your baggage, asking an airline employee a question, or securing a place to sit down during your flight.

ARC produced a short video, starring Mr. Chuck Thackston, to explain its findings.

Based on your experience, does the 6-weeks-out finding seem reasonable?

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