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How to get a cheap airfare, according to a guy who sets the prices for American Airlines

Planes are parked next to a landing track at the international airport of Santiago city, Chile, September 15, 2015.
Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
There is a pattern.
  • David Yanofsky
By David Yanofsky

Editor of code, visuals, and data

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Getting a cheap airline fare has become an art form, with websites that predict spikes in prices to the day, and theories abounding online about when exactly is the perfect time to buy. But all that strategizing masks the simpler truth, just revealed by an airline insider: The cheapest fares are on days when fewer people are traveling, according to Tim Lyon, a managing director of revenue management at American Airlines.

Flying mid-week, avoiding holidays, and traveling during low seasons will have more of an effect on reducing your fare than trying to time exactly how far in advance you book. While this tidbit—which he revealed in an interview with Bloomberg—is by no means a new revelation, it is rare to hear such direct advice from an airline official.

The reason, Lyon told Bloomberg, is that the primary factor in determining flight prices is travelers’ demand to fly a route. Airline schedules (aka supply) are set according to longer-term projections, made months in advance, making them not very flexible and, in the short term, pretty much a fixed cost. However ticket prices can be changed multiple times day, which allows an airline to respond to whatever level of demand a route or flight is currently encountering—by reducing prices to fill those empty seats.

“In the end, the seats are going to fly,” Lyon told Bloomberg. The airline’s strategy is to “put the most revenue on the plane, regardless of [the] cost” of operating a route.

The advice is contrary to what many online travel agents have promoted in recent years. Sites such as Kayak, Skyscanner, and CheapAir have advocated for buying tickets a certain number of days or weeks in advance. Of course, time before travel is a factor in ticket pricing (especially in the last two weeks), but Lyon’s comments point to why that method is too simplistic and often erroneous.

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