Online corporates hack human psychology to make you pay more
A few days ago, I was trying to book a flight ticket for a family vacation. I needed to get the shortest flight, as my mother is traveling with us, and she has been having some health issues. I was using a travel app to book the flight. The trip involved multiple airlines so I couldn’t book directly from any of the involved airlines’ websites, which is what I would normally do.
Anyway, I finalized on the flights, selected the seats, and hit the pay button. At this point, a pop-up appeared in the app, saying “Oops, an error has occurred. We are taking you back to the flight selection page.” This kept happening time after time, with the selected seats disappearing from the list of the available seats.
What’s more, the ticket price kept rising every time I repeated the transaction, unsuccessfully. As you can see from the screen captures below, the four seats in Row 25 cost ₹44,385 (this was my second try). Three attempts later, I was in Row 28 and the ticket price had risen up by nearly ₹2000 to ₹46,293. A few more attempts later, the price difference had gone up by ₹10000.
From past experience, I knew the solution was to try after an hour or so.
However, I needed to first figure out why the booking was failing, as the app wasn’t telling me. Now, I had been using my Android app as it had accumulated reward points from my prior flight bookings. But I have found that iPhone apps are quite often better than their Android brethren.
Sure enough, the moment I entered my mother’s name in the iPhone app, a pop-up appeared saying that a name should have more than one letter. That explained it. My mother’s surname in her Aadhaar card, the national ID card of India, is just the first initial of her surname. Don’t ask me why, as this kind of things often happen in India.
Anyway, I quickly typed in her full surname and the system accepted it and took me to the payment screen. Problem solved. I would ask my mother to use her passport as her travel ID as it has her full name. I quit the iPhone app and went back to my Android to complete the payment.
At that moment, my phone rang. It was an unknown number. The area code said 22, which was Mumbai, where many of India’s corporates have their headquarters. I answered the call. A friendly female voice informed me that she was calling was from the travel app’s office, and she had noticed that I had been trying to book a ticket without success, and she wanted to know if she could help me complete the payment process.
I was taken aback. But if she was willing to play by my rules, then why not?
So I cautiously agreed, subject to the condition she gets me the tickets at the original prices. She asked me to hang on, and a few seconds later informed me that the airline had hiked its price to around ₹56000, and there was nothing she could do about it. She asks me if she should go ahead and complete the booking, hinting at a possibility of further price rises. I politely thanked her and replied that I would prefer to book the tickets myself and take my chances on the price rise.
An hour later, I had another go. As I expected, Row 24 onwards was again available, and the price had dropped down to the original ₹44,385. I went ahead with the booking, using my mother’s full surname, and it went through without any hiccups.
Here’s my take on what happened and why.
I think the ticket system is programmed to show failed bookings as unavailable for a short period of time, after which the seats are unblocked. Secondly, the system is designed to raise prices if seats start selling off fast. My guess is the system assumed my repeated failed bookings were actual sales, concluded that tickets were selling fast, and then automatically jacked up the prices. When I took an hour’s break, the failed bookings would have been unblocked, the seats would again show up as available, and the system would drop the price.
I can forgive the system as it doesn’t seem programmed to cheat.
But the human angle is a different story.
First off, I found it quite creepy when the lady called my phone out of the blue and told me she knew I was trying to book a flight ticket, and it had failed.
Secondly, her offer to ‘help me’ confirm the booking at a higher price was a clever psychological ploy. Seeing the ticket prices swiftly rising by ₹10000, some customers would panic, and accept her offer to help. The thing is being in the industry, she most likely was aware that price hikes could be triggered by repeated failed attempts by a user, and there was a good possibility of the prices falling back to earth. But she chose to suppress that info from me.
I was fortunate in that I have been booking all my travel tickets online for a while. So I intuitively felt the price rise was being caused by my repeated failed bookings. However, if I had been wrong and the prices had gone up, I would have been kicking myself. There was no way I could avoid traveling on that particular date as the rest of the family is already booked and confirmed.
Then again, I have always had a high appetite for risk. Not everyone is like me. This was what the lady was banking on when she called me.
The scary thing is the company behind that lady is doing nothing illegal. But ₹10000 ($150) is not peanuts. In my book, anyone who persuades me to part with that kind of money for no reason is a crook. I see these companies as a new sort of dangerous online predator of the financial kind, who play on your fears to persuade you to pay a lot more than you should.
As the old saying goes, knowing your enemy is half the battle won. Every time you go online to buy something, be aware that someone is watching you. And if a nice lady calls you offering to help, take her help by all means.
But on your terms, not theirs.