May 10, 2011

The airline cookie conspirancy: The myth busted (at least for now)

As I promised in my previous blog post I will reveal today the findings of our research on the issue of airline tickets and customer profiling by means of cookies or other more advanced techniques.
The reason for this research was that the Dutch TV program TROS RADAR came to me with the request to help them give an answer to the question whether airlines are adjusting the prices of flights on the basis of customer profiling. The reason for this question is that many online customers have the idea that prices are changing in a way that can be only explained if the airlines know who you are and discriminate for example against old customers by offering higher prices than prices they offer to new customers. In this case cookies, super-cookies or advanced “device fingerprinting” techniques.
Together with a PhD candidate in my department we did a month-long experiment tracking four airlines with requests for ticket prices from two computers: one computer was a ”normal” device like the one everybody using when surfing the web where all kinds of cookies and other fingerprinting data could be installed and followed up. The second was a “clean” computer with changing IP address and formatted every time before the use so no records of any kind could be traced whatsoever. The requests for prices were sent simultaneously, for the same flights three times a day.
The findings are short of disappointing for the cookie conspiracy theorists: For this particular setting no difference was detected between the two computers indicating that profiling does not play any role here. What we found is that prices can sometimes change within the same day and sometimes dramatically indeed. The experiment was combined with a consumer survey revealing interesting information about peoples’ attitudes on the issue: on the average about 25% of the Dutch consumers are sure that prices of airlines are based on customer information that airlines obtained without their consent and 50% of them are not sure but they think that this is possible. The question of course is: If profiling does not play any role then why prices are changing like this? The answer is Yield Management! Airlines like many other capacity-constrained service industries are using various techniques to utilize their capacity as much as possible. Price discrimination (which is nothing new in the marketing) is one of the tools used in this context.

Is the cookie conspiracy case closed? I don’t think so, this was though the first scientific study on the issue. As such it is of course subject to several limitations. What we can say is that for the four airlines we investigated, for the period of April 2011 and for the specific flights we looked at we found no evidence of price discrimination based on profiling. I can not of course exclude the possibility that this technique is applied for other flights, by other airlines, in other parts of the world. For those interested and speak Dutch they can see the TV show of last night in this link:


NEW!! Around the end of May 2013) there will be a working paper available describing the study and the results in detail. If you are interested for a copy send me an email in e.constantinides@utwente.nl