ATPCO (Airline Tariff Publishing Company) is the organization that collects and distributes airline fare information. ATPCO (sometimes referred to as "fare central" by insiders) is a for-profit corporation located near Washington Dulles International Airport. ATPCO collects fare information from over 550 airlines and then distributes it via various global distribution systems, thereby enabling airlines to both see almost instantaneously what others are chargingand then to post their own fares.
To change fares, its participating airlines worldwide must send their adjustments via telecommunication or fax to the ATPCO system. Next, ATPCO informs its paying subscribers, who in turn inform the rest of the world. Airlines can change airfares up to three times each weekday, at 10 A.M., 12:30 P.M. and 8 P.M., Eastern Standard Time. On Saturdays and Sundays, they may only enter fare changes at 5 P.M.
Since most airlines open flight bookings about 325 days before departure, it is theoretically possible that the selling price for each seat could change more than 800 times before takeoff!
Neither ATPCO nor the federal government places a limit on the number of fares that can be offered on a single flight. Therefore, it is entirely possible that passengers seated within the same cabin will have paid dozens of different prices.
Unrestricted ticketsthe costliest seatsare typically sold to business travelers who want the privilege of being able to alter their flight schedule. Such tickets do not require a Saturday night stay-over. Cheaper tickets are sold to those who buy in advance and to those who have a Saturday night stay-over. This rule came into play to separate budget-minded tourists from deep-pocketed business travelers.
Airlines do everything they can to attract the attention of potential buyers. They'll announce a reduced fare, for instance, from city A to city B, selling tickets at $100 instead of the usual $175. What they're not saying is how many of those $100 bargain seats are actually available. They might mark down 30, 20 or even just 10 seats in an attempt to lure buyersand they're not obliged to disclose how many exist.
According to federal law, however, once a price is advertised, at least 10% of the tickets in that segment of the market must be sold at that price. Airline insiders refer to these price categories as "buckets." And on a Boeing 737, which carries about 100 coach passengers, it's common for an airline to offer seven "bucket seats" on sale at one time.
Some airline industry insiders say fare changes are most often announced on Friday afternoons so that the airline can see how it works through the weekend, when sales volume is lower and the price change is less risky for the airline. Then on Monday, they can decide whether to hold that price or retreat to the higher fare.
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