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Why are some flights so costly?

Middle East

Question:

We are both teachers living in Doha, Qatar, but have family in the UK. We want to go to South Africa this summer before travelling to the UK for the reminder of the summer holidays.

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Flights between rich cities cost more

Can you explain why to fly direct from Doha to London by Qatar Airways the fare is normally around £700, but to fly from London to Johannesburg it costs £400, via Doha? Why is it £300 less to fly London-Doha-Johannesburg-Doha-London than to fly Doha-London? Also, is there any way we can book the London-Doha-South Africa ticket but just pick up the flight at Doha? Please help a bemused traveller.

Alex Jenkins

Answer:

 Were air travel charged per mile or kilometre travelled, in the same way as taxis or trains in some countries, then the situation you describe would be impossible. But when airlines set air fares, the distance from A to B (possibly via C) is only one of the considerations.

As you will appreciate, in any industry products are priced according to their desirability and the amount of competition. A non-stop flight from a rich city like Doha to a global hub such as London on a top-flight carrier such as Qatar Airways is a desirable commodity. The only other airline that flies Doha-Heathrow is British Airways, which is one-fifth owned by the Qatari carrier. Competition isn’t exactly cut-throat.

In contrast, the market between London and Johannesburg is ferociously competitive, particularly among the many airlines that offer a one-stop service. Air France, Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines, along with Qatar Airways’ rivals, Etihad of Abu Dhabi and Emirates of Dubai, are just a few of the airlines that offer excellent deals.

If an airline were to fill its planes with people flying from London to Johannesburg and paying only £400 return for the privilege, it would soon go bankrupt. But only a certain proportion of seats are sold at knockdown prices. For example Qatar Airways can sell seats between London and Doha for £700 return, and between the Gulf and Johannesburg for perhaps £900 return. The trouble is, it can’t sell enough of them. So using the dark art of revenue management – which aims to fill all the seats while extracting the maximum that a passenger is prepared to pay – a certain number of really cheap fares for connecting flights are put into the market.

You are not the first person to have thought of leaving out one or more segments of a journey in order to reduce the fare. The airlines robustly police what is termed “tariff abuse”. If you fail to show up for any part of your journey, the rest of the trip will automatically be cancelled: so if you were not at Johannesburg to check in for the Doha flight, Qatar Airways would keep all your money.

The solution for you? Well, there will be plenty of good deals in the market for indirect flights going Doha-somewhere-Johannesburg, and Doha-somewhere-London. So it probably makes sense to plan to return to Doha in the middle of your trip. Annoying, I agree – but that is the reality of 21st-century aviation.

Every day, our travel correspondent, Simon Calder, tackles a reader’s question. 

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