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Do airlines and automakers game the pricing system?

According to various news reports, American Airlines will charge extra fees for the first few rows of coach seats. You might figure that those greedy airlines are shafting us again.

Well, maybe. But I suspect there’s another factor at work. It’s one that automakers and dealers know well -- online shopping.

When you shop for airline tickets online, you put in your criteria, wait a minute, and, voila, up pops a list organized by price. How many consumers do you think immediately jump on the lowest price?

It’s very similar to online car shopping. As every salesperson knows, consumers can do very detailed price comparisons online. And it’s changed the business.

One example: A few years ago, General Motors cited online searches as one reason that it went to value pricing -- cutting sticker prices to be closer to the actual transaction price.

GM was offering hefty incentives, but many consumers didn’t get far enough into the buying process to learn about them. They saw that the list price was higher than those of other vehicles, and they moved on.

It looks to me like the airlines are cutting “sticker prices” to grab the online shopper’s interest, then getting the money back with add-ons. Maybe that’s gaming the system, but, hey, price transparency is brutal.

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