Do Airlines Stick It To Us So Badly That They Deserve To Have Us Stick It Back?

USA Today carries a piece that suggests that booking mistake fares used to be considered morally wrong, but that airlines stick it to us so badly that people no longer have an ethical problem with it.

So, are customers who book mistake fares stealing? When I began investigating mistake fares a decade ago, there was a strong consensus among most passengers. It was wrong, no question about it. Only a small, vocal group of loyalty-program bloggers disagreed, but their views were far outside the mainstream.

Not anymore. A short decade of cuts and consolidations have made even the occasional traveler aware of the draconian airline policies, including onerous change fees, ticket restrictions and other “ancillary” charges meant to line the pockets of airline shareholders. Airlines have developed technology to extract every last penny from passengers. And, predictably, the tide of public opinion turned.

Now it’s a Christopher Elliott piece, and (though no doubt he’d deny it) ‘a decade ago’ there weren’t many ‘loyalty program bloggers’ and certainly not many writing about mistake fares. So by process of elimination he must be referring to me.

But Elliott is almost certainly 100% wrong here.

First, because consumer satisfaction with airlines is no lower today than it was 20 years ago. (The idea that airlines used to be popular, especially when the standard is ‘a decade ago’ does seem implausible even without reference to actual data.)

And second because the public used to have sympathy for consumers that booked mistake fares. They no longer do. When airlines would cancel mistake fares, bad publicity ensued.

Indeed, it used to be considered a moral issue, and so United put themselves on the side of the consumer.

UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co., JetBlue Airways Corp. and Singapore Airlines all say their policy is to not cancel tickets even when a mistake is discovered, no matter how large the error.

“That is the right thing to do,” says United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. In 2007, United honored a business-class fare from Los Angeles or San Francisco to destinations in New Zealand that was missing one zero: it was sold as $1,062 plus taxes and fees instead of $10,620 plus taxes and fees.

DOT rules that used to require airlines to honor mistake fares changed this.

The government’s requiring airlines to honor mistake fares led to public sympathy for airlines when they were forced to honor their mistakes. It seemed like consumers were getting something they weren’t entitled to.

It used to be that consumers had the cry that airlines forced consumers to pay for their mistakes, and that airlines should too.

But DOT rules requiring airlines to give consumers a cooling off period where they could either hold a fare before purchase or cancel a fare within 24 hours of purchase meant that the ‘reciprocity’ argument no longer meant airlines ought to honor their mistakes. (Although they should certainly be required to act on a mistake in real time, within 24 hours or so.)

And that it was no longer a voluntary choice for airlines to honor a fare meant they no longer got credit for doing so, and it no longer made sense to appeal to their desire to avoid bad publicity over dashing the dreams of once-in-a-lifetime travelers.

And so it’s precisely when airlines began to get the technology tools (from ATPCO in 2009) which make international airfare mistakes less common that’s also when airlines began to get sympathy over being forced to honor those mistakes.

Put another way, the claim that people used to think airlines shouldn’t have to honor mistake fares – as Elliott suggests – and that now all of a sudden people don’t like the airlines and so think they should have to honor fares, gets it exactly backwards.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I couldn’t remember when I went down below. Thanks for the reminder. 😉

  2. No matter what you think about Christopher Elliott, at least his article is copy edited and readable.

  3. @Daniel…and what do you prefer? Copy edited, readable and poorly reasoned information or un-edited copy and sound reasoning? You have a choice here.

  4. It’s bad taste to quote a United spokeswoman in this piece who died years ago.

  5. @Michael T Sorry, why are those the choices? I want copy edited, readable and sound reasoning.

  6. If the plane was not sold out, it’s extra cash and it built extra loyalty. It’s like a sale.

  7. We learn in elementary school who are the kids we can trust and who are the ones we cannot, ready to take advantage of any of our mistakes and weaknesses, and we get satisfaction from taking advantage of the latter when they’re the ones screwing-up.

    Airlines are no different and they totally work hard at screwing us up, so when they are the one screwing up there’s a ton of satisfaction from dishing it back to them. Elliott has a great point, and kudos to him for saying this out loud. I have traveled lots, and feel the same. No love lost for an airlines that will take any opportunity at screwing me over with a new fee, a new restriction, a new smaller seat, a new enhanced deadline.

    And Gary, I understand that you consult to airlines, but towing the client’s line on your blog is only going to hurt its readership.

  8. @Daniel, and I’d like to get guaranteed 10% returns in the stock market with no risk. But we’re consumers–consumers of products, technology and media. (And we’re investors re my analogy…) We need to choose among the available options and, for better or worse, that’s generally a trade-off in features and benefits. It’s up to us to choose–and if no one reads Gary’s blog because it’s not readable (and I don’t think it is) then he’ll either do something about it or cease to publish it.

  9. This is boring.

    And poorly written. And clearly not proofread.

    But mostly boring.

  10. I’ve always found the “ethics” of mistake airfares to be a silly subject. Big faceless corporation offers to sell me something I want to buy at a price I think is very low. I buy it. If big faceless corporation delivers me the goods (aka, let’s me travel), great. If they don’t, I move on. Meanwhile few outsiders pay any attention to this stuff and, among those who do, the reactions range from encouragement to amusement to jealousy. Which is a pretty typical spectrum of human emotion.

    I don’t think much has changed on this, except the technology has improved in the past decade and we have fewer mistake airfares. But the ethics? Still the same boring subject.

  11. I think Elliott is correct in his thinking and Gary, you are wrong! You have no idea what average travelers go through when they travel. You are a top elite with at least one airline. Top elites are very well taken care of,…..low level elites and non-elites are treated many times, very poorly. I know, I have experienced American/US Air bad service, on just about every trip for the least year. I’ll probably start using Delta again, as American is so pitiful. And, I have stock in American, which I will probably sell soon.

    The American public as a whole, think airlines are greedy. Using the ACSI ignores all the other studies and surveys that have most airlines rating poorly compared to other industries. The bloggers on Boarding Area live a bubble and have no concept of what the general public endure as travelers!

  12. @JohnB there’s no question that people (a) don’t like airlines and (b) find travel frustrating. But where’s your data that people dislike the airlines more than even before, and that’s led them to support booking mistake fares?

  13. Why the hate? Another attack on poor Christopher Elliott who is a renown travel expert.

  14. What is this beef you have with Elliott? It is childish and you need to get over it. He *must* be talking about you? Wow, doesn’t get any more narcissistic than that…

  15. Poor Chris Elliott? Over my many years of travel bulletin board membership, many of us have questioned poor Chris Elliott and his ‘facts’. He’s always provided me (us) with many a good chuckle. His credibility left the garage a long time ago.

    If it weren’t for the bloggers, many of his mis-statements would be accepted as truth.

  16. Of course they should be honoring these fares. It’s not a matter of “they didn’t mean it.” I have no problem with giving the airlines the same period that the consumers have to cancel a mistake, 24 hours. If they want to get out of it after that, they can pay the consumer the change fee that the consumer would have to pay to get the same ticket.

    @Gary, I would argue that airline satisfaction is lower than it was in the baseline year. The data in 15 is getting supported by JetBlue and Alaska (while hurt by Spirit), while the data in the baseline year is artificially deflated by Continental and Northwest. Looking at the big guys:

    Airline Baseline 2015

    LUV 78 78
    DAL 77 71
    AAL 70 66
    UAL 71 60
    All others 70 73
    US 72 66

    Four airlines declining, three losing six points, one losing eleven. That’s a range of 8-15%
    One stayed the same.
    One up a bit, about 4%.

    Now, the question becomes why we are seeing this decline. It is hard to place 100% of the “fault” on the airlines themselves, but that’s a discussion for another time.


  17. I am of the mind that some blogs, and the comments sections on them, and Flyertalk tend to make me side more often with airlines over mistake fares. I understand the “airlines stick it to us every chance they have, so we should stick it to them” mentality. And I don’t necessarily disagree with it. What has turned me off so much in taking the passengers side on mistake fares is the blatant entitlement and cry babiness that permeates out of many in this hobby when a mistake fare is booked and ultimately canceled. This may not be the majority, but they are loud. And they are obnoxious.

    I’ll never forget one of your fellow bloggers whining about having the 4 mile 1st class tickets to Hong Kong canceled by referencing that he is a senior citizen and some other BS.

  18. Nothing gets my eyes rolling like Chris Elliott. I still can’t believe Boarding Area let him on. I guess for the page views and the revenue.

  19. One of the main reasons people hate airlines aside from all the reasons in your article like additional fees, bad service, delays, and cancellations is the fact that their pricing methodology is black magic. Name one other product or service available for purchase that acts like an airfare. People like to know how processes work and that supply and demand ultimately rule pricing. The fact that every person on the plane paid a different price and often times wildly different prices makes people anxious and angry when they feel they are being taken advantage of. Why does a flight from JFK-LAX cost $400 6 months out but $310 2 months out? Or for that matter, why is it a flight with a stop is MORE expensive than a non-stop. It doesn’t seem to make sense. If the airlines could actually explain to the flying public how airfares are calculated people I think would be more informed consumers.

  20. Any business establishment I think mistreats me I ought to be able to steal from as much as I like, right? Morals are so last century.

  21. So, an airline employee pushes a button or three to execute a change fee and we get charged $300 for the privilege. The definition of that is usury?

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