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.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.