Compare!

If you have ever shopped for a cellphone or a new car, you know the challenges of comparison shopping. When you come right down to it, no two of these things are exactly alike or priced alike.

Car A comes with all-wheel drive, but that's an option on Car B. Car C has a sunroof and heated seats, but to get heated seats in Car D you must pay for an extra trim package that includes other features you don't want.

Dealer A negotiates freely from the sticker price, but Dealer B has a no-haggle pricing policy -- though you pay extra for a buyer protection plan. Dealer A, however, might throw that in for free if you're a good negotiator.

And no matter what the price is, whether it's dealer invoice, sticker, an advertised special or a the result of give-and-take, there's always taxes, tags, dealer prep, transportation and who knows what else.

And it's nearly as bad with cellphones. The iPhone is desirable but expensive. You get similar functionality with a phone using Google's Android software, but you miss out on the elegance of the "Apple experience," which is a big deal if you use other Apple devices.

And which carrier offers the best mix of messaging and Internet usage? No two basic plans are exactly the same, and if you don't already use a cellphone, you don't know how good the reception is in your usual haunts until you actually try it.

How do you compare?

Frankly, we don't know, but millions of people do it all the time, without much help from the federal government. Judging by the number of cars and cellphones in use (often in simultaneous use), the difficulty of comparison shopping hasn't really dampened demand for these products.

Over in the travel business, however, things are different. The idea has taken root among some consumer advocates, industry leaders and government officials that it's the government's job to ensure that consumers can easily obtain instantaneous price comparisons for air travel on the Internet.

Two or three decades ago, price comparisons in the airline business were pretty much a snap. Virtually all airlines slavishly matched each other's fares, and there was very little to differentiate Carrier A from Carrier B except schedule and price.

Baggage, meals and other ancillary services were bundled into the fare, so sorting the industry's offerings by schedule and price became child's play for GDSs and, later, Internet sites and search engines.

But those days are gone, and along with them the commoditization that drove fares down and drove travel agents to despair.

The airlines, having figured out that nobody wins a "race to the bottom," are now trying to differentiate themselves by further developing brand loyalties and by customizing and pricing their services in ways that defy easy comparisons and commoditization.

As annoying as this trend is for some shoppers, it might be the smartest thing the airlines have done since they switched from propellers to jet engines.

Shopping for a flight may never be as easy as it once was, but we doubt if it will ever get as grueling as shopping for a car. Even so, the arrival of complexity in pricing and product positioning could assure a continued role for resourceful intermediaries.

If we're serious about airline deregulation, and we are, it would seem that what the government needs to do right about now is nothing much.
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