Airline Bots: How Bots Affect Airlines

November 13, 2018 Edward Roberts

Distil’s Research Lab recently released a new threat research report titled, “How Bots Affect Airlines.” This marks the first industry-specific report into airline bots and analyzed 7.4 billion requests from 180 domains (100 airlines) internationally, finding that 43.9% of airline traffic was bots.

Who Launches Airline Bots?

Airline bots are launched by four main groups including unauthorized online travel agencies, aggregators, and competitors scraping flight information to determine fares and seat availability. The more nefarious of these groups also use bots to hold seats, either in the hope of re-selling them elsewhere or to prevent real human passengers from booking. Either way this tactic of seat spinning or ticket hoarding leads to empty seats if the bots release their hold as departure time gets closer.

How Bots Affect Look-to-Book Ratios

‘Some airlines have over 90% of their traffic made up of bots. The effect of this bot activity performing constant scraping of flight information is to skew the analytics of the airline. A key metric is the look-to-book ratio and keeping it within acceptable limits can reduce fees paid to third party booking systems. The volume of airline flight web scraping bots launched from OTAs, aggregators, competitors is a significant problem because it damages the look-to-book ratio of the airline and can result in increased fees to third-party booking engine vendors. Airlines by adopting active bot blocking strategies can protect their look to book ratio.’

How Criminals Attack Loyalty Programs

Criminal use automation techniques to attack rewards programs using loyalty bots. Because of the currency held within loyalty programs, gaining access to these accounts is potentially lucrative. Bots are used by criminals to launch brute force credential stuffing and credential cracking attacks to takeover accounts. Once a loyalty bot is inside an account, the criminal can commit fraud by purchasing items with the stolen currency, or transfer the balance to another account. The customer relationship of the victim’s account is damaged when trying to recoup their lost loyalty points.

How Bots Can Hold Airline Seats

While all airlines experience seat spinning, those in the Asia Pacific region see a higher proportion because in some countries a seat can be held at no cost for 24 hours before requiring payment. This allows the bot operator, for example an OTA, to hold seats and re-sell the held booking without any investment. The problem is most visible to an airline as departure time draws closer. When a flight that was previously fully booked suddenly sees increasing numbers of empty seats appear it is a good indication of bot activity. No airline likes empty seats at take-off, especially if unauthorized bots are the culprit.

Bots and Credit Card Fraud on Airlines

Credit card fraud is a constant problem for any ecommerce business and airlines are no different. Card-not-present transactions are necessary but lead to an increase in options for criminals attempting to commit fraud using stolen or incomplete credit card details. Bots are used to run carding and card cracking scams. Any increase in customer complaints about account lockouts or increase in credit card fraud is a good indicator of the presence of malicious bots. Reducing the total volume of bot traffic on the website or mobile app typically reduces the amount of attempted automated fraud during transactions.

To understand more about how bots affect airlines, download the report.

About the Author

Edward Roberts

Edward Roberts leads Product Marketing and has over twenty years experience in technology marketing. Previously he worked for Juniper Networks, heading up Product Marketing for the Counter Security team. Before that he ran marketing for Mykonos Software, a web security company.

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