A brief history of airline booking systems

Thanks, airlines. Image: Getty.

Are algorithms trying to steal our children? That’s the question at the heart of the recent airline ticket pricing scandal. Are budget airlines trying to squeeze more money out of families by deliberately allocating them seats in separate parts of the plane, then forcing them to pay a fee so that children can be seated next to their responsible adult?

The airlines claim that when the fee isn’t paid, seats are simply randomly allocated. When the BBC’s Watchdog programme did some trials, a statistician claimed the result – in which every single person who booked was assigned an undesirable middle seat – was less likely than a National Lottery win.

As far as price gouging goes, airlines certainly have the means, motive, and opportunity. Plane ticket booking systems are a science developed over decades, and before they could rely on computers there were all sorts of wild and wonderful systems and contraptions: simple paper ledgers were replaced with index cards, which became blackboards, which became vast systems of boards of coloured chips. There was even a mechanical device that represented flight capacity, with tubes representing flights, filled with tiny plastic balls representing the seats. When a seat was booked on a fight, a button was pressed and a ball would pop out of the corresponding tube.

Algorithmic price adjustments have become a key part of this model, enabled by the vast amount of data that an airline booking system has to track just to function. Airlines have a huge incentive to maximise the number of people they can book on to any given flight and the amount of money they can extract from any given individual, too. While a passenger may be presented with a simple choice between economy and business, an airline has a far more sophisticated model based on how many tickets it can sell at any given price – which is why prices can fluctuate so wildly on online booking sites.

The person in the seat next to you may to all intents and purposes have the same flying experience, but as far as the airline is concerned will have bought a completely different ‘product’. As well as how far ahead a ticket is purchased, it’ll also factor in the likelihood that a ticket is being bought for business or pleasure: if it believes a ticket bought last minute midweek is most likely to be bought by someone on a work trip, it’ll jack up the prices.


This has inevitably led to an attitude of deep suspicion towards these companies. The jury is out on whether the widely believed idea that companies use browser cookies to hike the price on a second visit is actually something that really happens: one study found that, in 59 per cent of cases, checking the price again anonymously actually resulted in a higher price than if not trying to mask the user’s identity. In fact, it could just be a consequence of how volatile every other part of the pricing system is: but everyone still believes it anyway.

Whether or not this latest controversy is deliberate attempt to gouge people or the result of an algorithm that’s not been properly thought through, in an industry that’s grown up around gaming the system it wouldn’t be particularly shocking if someone had tried to do something like this to coin in a few more booking fees. On the face of it doesn’t seem like all that a great strategy: aside from the existing PR backlash from anxious families, it doesn’t take much imagination to ponder the, at best, tiresome, scenarios that might result from randomly seating unaccompanied five-year-olds on a packed flight.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority policy on this is that children should never be seated more than one seat away from a responsible adult: some of the budget airlines have simply made paying a fee a requirement for families. Presumably the algorithms will report the cost-benefit analysis of this grimy behaviour and adjust the fees accordingly.

There might be other, more profitable avenues anyway. Perhaps you could accept a cash payment from unruly teenagers to be moved away from the square parents they’re sick of after a two week holiday? Or charge people travelling on business a small fee to be surreptitiously parted from a particularly flatulent colleague? And what do the algorithms have to say about sedating passengers and stacking them up in coffins?

This article previously appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.