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Testing Theories of Scarcity Pricing in the Airline Industry

  • Steven L. Puller
  • Anirban Sengupta
  • Steven N. Wiggins

This paper investigates why passengers pay substantially different fares for travel on the same airline between the same two airports. We investigate questions that are fundamentally different from those in the existing literature on airline price dispersion. We use a unique new dataset to test between two broad classes of theories regarding airline pricing. The first group of theories, as advanced by Dana (1999b) and Gale and Holmes (1993), postulates that airlines practice scarcity based pricing and predicts that variation in ticket prices is driven by differences between high demand and low demand periods. The second group of theories is that airlines practice price discrimination by using ticketing restrictions to segment customers by willingness to pay. We use a unique dataset, a census of ticket transactions from one of the major computer reservation systems, to study the relationships between fares, ticket characteristics, and flight load factors. The central advantage of our dataset is that it contains variables not previously available that permit a test of these theories. We find only mixed support for the scarcity pricing theories. Flights during high demand periods have slightly higher fares but exhibit no more fare dispersion than flights where demand is low. Moreover, the fraction of discounted advance purchase seats is only slightly higher on off-peak flights. However, ticket characteristics that are associated with second-degree price discrimination drive much of the variation in ticket pricing.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 15555.

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Date of creation: Dec 2009
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15555
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  1. James D. Dana & Jr., 1998. "Advance-Purchase Discounts and Price Discrimination in Competitive Markets," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 106(2), pages 395-422, April.
  2. James D. Dana Jr., 1999. "Using Yield Management to Shift Demand When the Peak Time is Unknown," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 30(3), pages 456-474, Autumn.
  3. Borenstein, Severin & Rose, Nancy L, 1995. "Bankruptcy and Pricing Behavior in U.S. Airline Markets," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 85(2), pages 397-402, May.
  4. Anirban Sengupta & Steven Wiggins, 2006. "Airline Pricing, Price Dispersion and Ticket Characteristics On and Off the Internet," Working Papers 06-07, NET Institute, revised Oct 2006.
  5. Ciliberto, Federico & Schenone, Carola, 2010. "Bankruptcy and Product-Market Competition: Evidence from the Airline Industry," MPRA Paper 24914, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  6. Escobari, Diego, 2009. "Systematic peak-load pricing, congestion premia and demand diverting: Empirical evidence," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 103(1), pages 59-61, April.
  7. Borenstein, Severin & Rose, Nancy L, 1994. "Competition and Price Dispersion in the U.S. Airline Industry," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 102(4), pages 653-83, August.
  8. James D. Dana Jr., 1999. "Equilibrium Price Dispersion Under Demand Uncertainty: The Roles of Costly Capacity and Market Structure," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 30(4), pages 632-660, Winter.
  9. Kristopher S. Gerardi & Adam Hale Shapiro, 2009. "Does Competition Reduce Price Dispersion? New Evidence from the Airline Industry," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 117(1), pages 1-37, 02.
  10. Meghan R. Busse, 2002. "Firm Financial Condition and Airline Price Wars," Yale School of Management Working Papers ysm281, Yale School of Management.
  11. Austan Goolsbee & Chad Syverson, 2004. "How Do Incumbents Respond to the Threat of Entry? Evidence from the Major Airlines," Working Papers 04-04, NET Institute, revised Dec 2004.
  12. Prescott, Edward C, 1975. "Efficiency of the Natural Rate," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 83(6), pages 1229-36, December.
  13. Gale, Ian L. & Holmes, Thomas J., 1992. "The efficiency of advance-purchase discounts in the presence of aggregate demand uncertainty," International Journal of Industrial Organization, Elsevier, vol. 10(3), pages 413-437, September.
  14. Meghan Busse, 2002. "Firm Financial Condition and Airline Price Wars," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 33(2), pages 298-318, Summer.
  15. Gale, I.L. & Holmes, T.J., 1990. "Advance-Purchase Discounts And Monopoly Allocation Of Capacity," Working papers 9005, Wisconsin Madison - Social Systems.
  16. Eden, Benjamin, 1990. "Marginal Cost Pricing When Spot Markets Are Complete," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 98(6), pages 1293-1306, December.
  17. Diego Escobari & Li Gan, 2007. "Price Dispersion under Costly Capacity and Demand Uncertainty," NBER Working Papers 13075, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  18. Severin Borenstein & Nancy L. Rose, 2007. "How Airline Markets Work...Or Do They? Regulatory Reform in the Airline Industry," NBER Working Papers 13452, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  19. Steven Berry & Panle Jia, 2008. "Tracing the Woes: An Empirical Analysis of the Airline Industry," NBER Working Papers 14503, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  20. Severin Borenstein, 1989. "Hubs and High Fares: Dominance and Market Power in the U.S. Airline Industry," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 20(3), pages 344-365, Autumn.
  21. Rosenthal, Robert W, 1980. "A Model in Which an Increase in the Number of Sellers Leads to a Higher Price," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 48(6), pages 1575-79, September.
  22. Forbes, Silke J., 2008. "The effect of air traffic delays on airline prices," International Journal of Industrial Organization, Elsevier, vol. 26(5), pages 1218-1232, September.
  23. Stahl, Dale O, II, 1989. "Oligopolistic Pricing with Sequential Consumer Search," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(4), pages 700-712, September.
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