There’s a new class action lawsuit against American Airlines that strikes me as rather frivolous but raises some interesting questions about online purchases, airline seats as commodities, and the sale of digital goods. At least it’s prompted me to ponder some interesting questions.
First the suit itself. The complaint is that when you buy airline tickets on a website you’ll see a price and sometimes (rarely, but it happens) as you check out you’ll be told the inventory for your itinerary at that price isn’t really available, if you want the flights in question it will be more. Even more occasionally you’ll be told you’ll actually pay less.
American Airlines reportedly replaced the $297 ticket and changed the price to $397. The plaintiff says that she ultimately used $320 in air miles to purchase the ticket that was originally offered for $197.
“American’s breach of its contract with Plaintiff for the $197 ticket is part of a systematic and purposeful effort by American to dishonestly lure customers with contracts it knows it cannot honor, then fatten its coffers after the consumer—having already accepted the contract at a lower price—is forced to pay more for the same service,” alleges the American Airlines class action lawsuit.
I’m not even sure what it means for the plaintiff to have “used $320 in air miles” to purchase the $397 ticket maybe they booked a 12,500 saver award and are valuing their miles at over 2.5 cents apiece. It’s unclear to me how having to redeem an award ticket (spending miles that don’t have cash value) can constitute damages, but I’d rather not focus on legal issues here — even around valuing miles.
The lawsuit claims changing the price quote during the booking path is a ‘bait and switch’ one fare is advertised, you want to buy it, but you’re presented a higher price before you can finalize the transaction. And since sometimes a customer may buy the higher fare that’s an unjust enrichment — luring the customer in and then charging them more.
I’ll leave the legal issues to lawyers, but the reasons I’m not sympathetic to this:
- It’s not like the airline is raising the price after a sale. They’re checking the price again before going through the sale.
- This most often occurs because of IT errors. IT is hard. Data gets cached to deliver as good a booking experience as possible. There’s no question this is frustrating, but I’ve never felt I could sue American Airlines because AA.com is bad (the same holds true for not suing other airline booking sites because the buying experience isn’t great).
- This isn’t an advertisement in the classic sense, meant to draw a customer to American’s website with a product or price that never existed. The customer is already at American’s website. And the price did exist, they’re just checking inventory and discovering there aren’t any seats left at that price.
The plaintiff would like you to think of this case as picking a pack of gum up from the store shelf, getting to the register, and being asked for more money than the posted sign.
I think of this more as showing the clerk at the register the list of what you want to buy, including an auto-generated price estimate, and the clerk goes in the back and checks and says they’re all out of the limited inventory of discounted product but they’re still willing to sell it to you at regular price.
If American Airlines simply had its website error out when the booking class inventory turned out not to be available there would be no issue, no case. “Oops, we made a mistake, it turns out we’re all out of seats at that price.”
But that’s not a very good experience. A website that just shrugs its shoulders and says tough luck isn’t as good for customers as one that comes back automatically with the next best option, “I can sell this to you for $20 more if you’d like” is better than making the customer start over and spend more time on their search to get that answer.
It can’t possibly be the case that industry-standard technology that uses caching is illegal. But what if it is? They’d have to reserve seats earlier in the booking process, taking space out of inventory to make sure it’s available for sale.
- Those seats wouldn’t be available to other customers in the meantime
- Shopping carts are frequently abandoned
- The seats might not go back into inventory, I know I get super frustrated by this working on awards if for some reason I have to cancel an itinerary and start over but no seats.
You might think an airline should create a shopping cart with a real reservation, including “this inventory will be held for [a specified number of] minutes.” Maybe that would be a better customer experience, though I’m not certain of that. However even if it is I’m not sure that the government ought to mandate it, or assess damages against a company that doesn’t do it.
Leaving aside the way in which inventory is in fact ‘reserved’ during the booking process, are consumers really going to benefit from this? If you’re an American Airlines customer watch this space — because if it settles you may get a coupon for use when you spend even more money still with American, though I bet in that case the lawyers involved will do quite well.
(HT: Eddy C.)