May 3, 2011

The airline cookie conspiracy: The myth investigated

In 2000 Amazon outraged some of its customers when it was revealed that different prices were charged for the same DVDs to customers with different shopping habits. This was the first widely discussed case of online price discrimination by web retailers depending on customer profiling. Since then online shops were often accused of using cookies in order to identify customers and charge them various prices. The discussion reached quite often the mass media where several cases of such practices have been revealed. The issue has been often become the subject of blogs: the airline industry, hotels and travel web sites in particular have been often accused of price discrimination based on customer cookie-based profiling. It is interesting that except Amazon who back in 2000 blamed a price test for the price discrimination and another case of a UK hotel that blamed a mistake in 2009 no online vendor has ever admitted in public that customer cookie-based profiling affects prices offered online.
Despite the mounting anecdotal evidence on the cookie conspiracy I was surprised to find out that no serious scientific research has been ever done on the issue. This while almost everyone of us can talk about an incident of unexplained differences in the price of an airline ticket that we bought online and found out that the neighbor who was flying with us in the same flight had to pay another price: no other explanation than profiling based priced discrimination is usually to blame.
The cookie conspiracy has become one of the web's urban legends and some time ago a consumer advocacy program of the Dutch TV asked me for help to investigate the issue. I am glad to say that together with a PhD student we did a moth-long study to find out whether the myth is true or not, at least in the airline world. Those interested in the answer (and speak Dutch) can see our findings in the TV program TROS Radar next Monday (20:30, May 9) in NL1. Those who will miss the program (or do not speak Dutch) but are interested in the answer must read my next blog post and the research paper we will write about the study.

NEW!! Around the end of May 2013) there will be a working paper available describing the study and the results in detail. If you are interested for a copy send me an email in