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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.