How Mistake Airfares Are Handled When the DOT Isn’t Involved…

A month ago flights originating in the UK were pricing in Danish Kroner at a price that’s pennies on the dollar what they normally run.

United voided these tickets.

The Department of Transportation received thousands of complaints, apparently, and they sided with United. I think it was the right moral result, but I also believe it was inconsistent with DOT rules, and they went through some significant backflips in order to get the result they clearly wanted.

While the DOT promulgated a rule requiring airlines to honor tickets that have been purchased regardless of price, they don’t like that airlines have to honor tickets regardless of price — they want consumers unaware of a glitch to have tickets honored, but don’t want consumers to be able to take advantage when they’re aware of glitches.

DOT has been in the process of amending their rules to prevent requiring airlines from honoring mistake fares.

So I found it interesting when South African Airways decided not to honor its $72 roundtrip Johannesburg – Abu Dhabi business class fare. Of course it didn’t touch the U.S., so DOT rules aren’t implicated. But with all of South African’s financial problems, you’d think they could use the $72..!

Via S., South Africa’s rules are much closer to common law on mistake fares.

“If a price as displayed contains an inadvertent and obvious error, the supplier is not bound by it after correcting the error in the displayed price; and taking reasonable steps . to inform consumers to whom the erroneous price may have been displayed of the error and the correct price.”

CPA attorney Janusz Luterek explained: “The purpose of the CPA is to protect consumers from exploitation, such as bait marketing, but an error of the magnitude described here cannot be seen as bait marketing. It’s clearly a glaring error.

An interesting twist though is a consumer who apparently called the airline, recorded the call, and the carrier didn’t blink at the price and re-confirmed the itinerary. That would seem to mitigate the ‘obvious mistake’ claim on the part of the airline.

When Expedia had the Tokyo and Osaka Hilton properties for $2 ($3 for Executive Floor) some folks making reservations were emailing Expedia to confirm their bookings. Some people even did that while the deal was still live. (I did it once the rate was pulled.)

It turns out that for the most part only those who had re-confirmed and been assured the bookings were valid were allowed to keep their reservations. (Expedia claimed they were cancelling reservations to prevent re-selling though their terms and conditions precluded name changes on the bookings to begin with.)

Because the mistake was for a hotel in Japan, the stay was fascinating — at check-in I received an apology letter from the hotel for their having made a mistake. I booked 7 days, though I only stayed 4, and they were apologetic again that on a prepaid Expedia booking they could not refund my $9.

In the case of the South African fare there’s at least an avenue to pursue for those who confirmed the fare with the airline (my suggestion is only to do so once the fare has been pulled – hah!).

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 think a good analogy is mistake pricing in newspapers: is it a pattern or is it a one-off error? A one-off error is dismissed but a pattern of errors will get you a fine.I think for many years the airlines simply didn’t care and repeatedly and with impunity posted incorrect fares. Clearly that is no longer the case: once the US took notice and regulated the issue airlines immediately implemented systems where incorrect fares can’t be posted: a double-check against fat fingers. It wasn’t expensive or inconvenient – but it was more expensive than giving zero f*cks. This is incontrovertible – the cases in which airlines have been held accountable have real evidence they knew the fares were posted (flyer talk postings by airline employees give it away).

    But were United to have been held accountable in this situation I am positive they would have litigated this issue. There’s no legal basis where true accidents should result in penalties of this magnitude. The moral basis AND the legal basis fall apart – the rules have been very successful in eliminating mistakes and we’re now deep in the weeds of actual IT errors that all business are entitled to make.

  2. Never went to law school; but I do know the legal system is neither fair and justice can be a game. My knowledge from a college course was that judges in civil courts usually expected a contract to be fair to all parties. To misuse a movie title, I realize life is fill with ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ and some have the right to bitch. Finally, failure to read or bring a contract to a lawyer, shouldn’t be an excuse to demand fairness from the government.

  3. United Twitter congratulated some guy on getting a good deal when he shared his Danish ticket…
    Not to mention their website and emails said your ticket is confirmed :-).

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