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What do different airline fare classes mean?

Dear Anita,

What differences do the fare classes—J, C, Y, M, B, etc.—make? How do they affect the prices and restrictions applied to travelers?

Tahlia L.
Taipei, Taiwan

Dear Tahlia,

Your question is a complex one, and as there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Understanding the airline fare alphabet is no easy task. Each letter corresponds to a different fare class, and fare classes are not consistent among airlines. In other words, each letter can mean different things to a particular airline. Exceptions are F, which is always first class, and Y, which is always the full coach fare.

With the exception of first and business class, remaining fare classes have nothing to do with a particular seat on the plane. A "Q" fare is not further back than say an "H" fare. Any subsequent letters or numbers following a fare class describes the conditions of a ticket such as non-refundable or full-fare.

Because fare classes designate different levels of restrictions, there are usually quite a number of them, especially for the economy/coach classes where special low fares and restricted tickets are commonplace. Other fare classes exist for upgrade and award tickets, industry discounts, and other specifications.

On a central reservation system (CRS), a particular airline will display available seats with a corresponding letter denoting the type of fare and corresponding conditions. Depending upon the display, the first letters listed (if available) are generally first or business class and are typically A, C, D, F, P, J, R. Coach occupies the remainder of the fare classes, or alphabet if you will.

Fare classes are the foundation for an airline's yield management system, which is used to maximize revenue from flights. Yield management uses historical traffic data as well as projections based on bookings, trends, and other information to work out the best mix of available fare classes for a particular flight or market, or both. This is why availabilities can change rapidly, especially in the lower, more restricted fare classes.

A designated class serves as a way to place value on the remaining seats in a plane, and the fares change often, making the system very complicated. Airlines are under enormous pressure to sell each seat, and that is where the pricing can get a little crazy and make no sense whatsoever.

I hope I've been helpful. Happy travels!

Anita Dunham-Potter

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