All About Consolidator Airfares
Decades ago, it became clear to airlines that only selling highly visible, published airfares to travel agents and consumers made it easy for competing airlines to beat their fares and make off with their customers. To ensure they could fill up less popular flights, airlines began quietly selling discounted seats through consolidators. They reasoned that a little revenue per seat was better than none, and because the discounted prices weren't published, other airlines wouldn't be able to swoop in and drive down overall prices. Airlines now see consolidators as a reliable distribution channel, negotiating annual contracts with them, establishing revenue targets, and tightly controlling ticket sales through a specific kind of booking class. A consolidator will have a contract to sell private fares at a lower price than the published fare. If there's a printed ticket, only "bulk" generally appears on the receipt. They generally can't - or won't - sell the ticket straight to you, but will offer it through a travel agent (including an online travel agent such as Travelocity or Expedia), or agencies such as the ones that advertise in Sunday newspaper travel sections. The agent adds their markup - keeping the margin slim so they're not out-priced by published fares - and passes the remaining savings on to you. True consolidators don't buy in quantity or ahead of time. Rather, they pull availability from their assigned class until the airline decides to close the window.
What's Your Best Chance of Finding the Fares?
Because consolidators don't actually buy the seats, they're usually granted their window of opportunity early in the booking process (to fill up a limited number of seats to hedge the airline's bet on passengers) or late (to make up for the passengers the airline estimated would book, but didn't).
What Do Consolidator Fares "Act" Like?
Consolidator fares generally act like those discounted economy class tickets of the lower echelons, and carry similar restrictions. Consolidators simply aren't built for customer service. As we mentioned before, through years of relationship-building, your travel agent has a much better grasp of which consolidators are good, and which ones are shady, than you do. Consolidators themselves can't really offer you any guarantees on your fare. Big consolidators have a lot of sway with the airlines because of the volume they do, so they can often help (but the reputable ones will only deal with your travel agent). As always, you'll want to ensure every purchase by using a credit, not a debit card, so you can take it up with the credit card company if the deal goes south. Travel agents have numerous choices of air consolidators to obtain lower airfares for their clients. Some may offer better airfares than others, but some companies are less than reputable. Many international seats on flights would go unsold if not for travel agents selling the excess seats sold by consolidators at often much cheaper rates.
The negatives of using consolidators may be:
Often there are larger change penalties and non refundable, though many published airfares are as well.
Sometimes customers cannot receive frequent flyer miles when using consolidator tickets.
Agents may not be able to choose specific seating or ask specific airline questions, since the consolidator has control of the booking, instead of published airfare purchased at the travel agency.
There may be an extra fee for the use of a credit card for payment.
Utilizing consolidators can be a great way to impress clients with lower airfares, particularly for international flights. This can also be a profitable tool for travel agents, making a winning situation for clients and travel agencies.