The very young probably don't know this, and the very old may have forgotten it, but there was a time when airlines printed their fares on pieces of paper and mailed them to their ticket offices, government agencies, business users and travel agencies.

The paper went into loose-leaf binders called "tariff books." Because a change in one fare meant that an entire page had to be reprinted, users would sometimes open the mail and find a tariff page bearing the notation "35th revised page 267-B." Those were the days.

We think we've come a long way, and we have, but recent events in airline pricing suggest that our journey may be just beginning.

Airlines now communicate their fare information electronically rather than on paper, and fares change much more frequently than they used to, but aside from its velocity, the basic process is still recognizable. The fares database buried in every GDS is little more than a storage site for the same data that used to arrive in the mail.

A handful of airlines, however, are adopting pricing practices that could take the industry into truly new directions. The two latest examples, appearing in our news pages today, are from Air Canada and Spirit.

Spirit is launching several new pricing initiatives, including private sales and "dynamic pricing."

Private sales are as old as department stores, but Spirit may be the first company to adapt the idea to the airline industry and couple it with a paid membership.

Perhaps even more entertaining is the prospect of "dynamic seat pricing," which could involve, say, a surcharge for an aisle seat that would vary with the length or other characteristics of the flight. 

Air Canada is building on its menu-driven approach to air fares with an expanded array of travel passes for transborder travel under which users pay a monthly fee for the right to book unlimited travel.

What these initiatives have in common is that they appear to be, for the present at least, incompatible with conventional GDSs. As with its Tango fares, Air Canada is telling agents and consumers to go to its Web site because GDS technology "does not provide for the ability to distribute this product."

We knew the Internet would change airline pricing, and it has. But rather than changing the nature of things, the impact of the Internet has been mostly to make things faster and more transparent.

What airlines are now experimenting with are approaches to pricing that are fundamentally new and different -- and tailor-made for the Web environment.

Rites of spring

No sooner did we advance our clocks to the new version of Daylight Savings Time than the weather cleared, our afternoons seemed a little brighter, birds started singing, and the headlines warned of rising gasoline prices.

Here we go again.

It appears that the fates are determined to make an annual event out of this spring/summer run-up of oil prices. Summer price spikes came as a surprise in 2005 and 2006, but are we now beginning to get "trained"? Will we soon come to accept the rise and fall of fuel prices as an accepted part of the rhythm of the seasons, like the prices of exotic produce?

How quaint to think of oil as "in season."  

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