It was only a matter of time, it seems, before someone applied the rules that have long governed the “art” of Wall Street trading to the highly unstable airfare market. That innovator/madman(?) is Robert Brown, the founder and CEO of OptionsAway.com, and if the algorithms he’s painstakingly crafted actually work, he may have succeeded in creating a new form of online travel agency.
On the surface, OptionsAway looks like any other airfare search engine, and its flights come in at the same price level one would find on Expedia, Kayak and the rest of the pack. But the consumer experience changes drastically on the second search page. There, alongside the prices, airline names and itineraries, consumers are given the option of putting a hold on an airfare for 3, 7, 14 or 21 days…without actually buying it.
“There are algorithms that are used to calculate the price of an option in the financial markets and we’ve used those, along with a very good understanding of airline revenue management, to calculate the probability of the movement of prices,” explains Brown. “This allows us to give the consumer an option on the ticket at a price that is reasonable to him and allows us to cover the risk of actually holding those flights.”
The average cost of holding the ticket is about $10-$14 (for a popular seven-day hold), but one could pay as little as $5 to hold a one-way ticket for three days, according to Brown.
If Options Away guesses rightly about the cost of the ticket (and the traveler’s intentions), the consumer eventually buys the ticket at the end of their “option”, paying no more than they would have on the day the “hold” was placed. If Options Away guesses wrongly about where the fare is headed, one of two things will happen. Either the traveler pays less than expected, since the cost of the ticket has gone down—a win-win situation for all. Or Options Away (and sometimes its airline partners) pays the difference in price. The take-away is that, whatever scenario plays out, the consumer doesn’t get taken. (And according to Jill Salzman, PR representative for Options Away, if the company sees a flight is about to sell out before an option is over, it will buy the ticket for the customer, so they have a place on the plane should they decide to eventually buy).
So what’s in it for Options Away, beyond the fees they receive for holding the tickets? Brown thinks there’s great value in knowing a consumer is thinking of traveling before anyone else in the industry does. “We’re a travel agency, so this model allows us to upsell the customer on hotel rooms and car rentals,” he notes. Eventually, the company hopes to sell options on those, too, allowing consumers to snag the sort of discounted hotel rooms and car rentals that one---sometimes---gets for paying well in advance.
The oddest service Options Away offers is its 24-hour hold on tickets. Odd because the Federal Government now requires that airlines allow passengers to cancel without penalty within 24-hours of booking a ticket. Brown explains that the company implemented this amenity at the request of their customers. Whether or not that’s true, we see little reason to buy this service.
But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t give Options Away a whirl... if only to suss out where flight prices are headed. You see, when a flight gets booked up, or prices for a certain flight start rising rapidly, Options Away stops offering options on that particular flight. The risks are too high for the company, and probably for travelers, too. Though its creators didn’t intend for it to work this way, consumers may want to use the site as a “when to buy-o-meter”. When Options Away stops betting that a flights price will stay stable, well, perhaps so should you.