Scientist: It’s impossible to guarantee lowest price or route for airline tickets

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FORT WORTH, Texas -One of the biggest puzzles of the consumer world is airline ticket pricing, with travelers often left wondering why they paid one price while the passenger beside them paid a lot more, or less, for the same flight.

But it takes a computer scientist with a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to really put things in perspective.

“It is theoretically impossible to guarantee that one can find the best route or price” at any given time, said Carl de Marcken, chief scientist and co-founder of ITA Software, a Cambridge, Mass., company that writes software used by online sites like Orbitz to calculate routes and prices.

That’s because the pricing system used by airlines is so complicated.

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There are millions of possible combinations of fare factors for any given trip, he said, and the airlines’ computer systems are constantly adjusting their fares.

De Marcken has put together an online essay demonstrating just how mind-numbingly complex the system of pricing airline tickets has become.

For one sample flight, an American Airlines trip between Boston and San Francisco that could connect at either Dallas/Fort Worth Airport or Chicago, he concluded that there are nearly 25 million ways to arrive at a fare.

He said it’s impossible for travel agents to assert that they’re offering the best fare at any given time, given the system’s complexity.

De Marcken’s essay is available online at http://www.demarcken.org/carl/papers/ITA-software-travel complexity/img0.html

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