At the beginning of the year there was an incredible first class mistake fare on Cathay Pacific from Vietnam to the U.S. It was quickly followed by an Air New Zealand business class mistake fare from Chicago to Sydney. Both fares were honored.
Last August offered business class from Los Angeles to much of Asia from $560 roundtrip. They, too, honored the deal.
You’d be forgiven if the lesson you drew from these incredible opportunities over the last year is that airfare mistakes happen all the time, and airlines let you travel the world in premium cabins at this pricing when they do.
- In fact mistake fares are far less common than they used to be, and likely to become even less common still.
- Now that the Department of Transportation has stopped requiring airlines to honor mistake fares they’ve become more likely to cancel tickets.
One thing you’ll notice about mistake fares is that they rarely occur with US airlines anymore. That wasn’t always the case. Four years ago American Airlines did have an amazing mistake fare to China, but largely such fares have occurred with non-US carriers in recent years.
Credit: Frank Unterspann via Wikimedia Commons. Independence Air once intentionally loaded a mistake fare into their system for free publicity.
A decade ago the Air Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO) which publishes fares for distribution introduced tools to flag when airfares are likely mistakes. Not all airlines have taken full advantage of these tools, or have had their staff properly trained. By North American carriers by and large have.
ATPCO says that 99% of mistake fares are caught before they’re released, but the remaining 1% can be costly so,
ATPCO, which houses and distributes over 87% of the world’s airfares and stores over 210 million active fares in its database, has launched a new feature for its FareManager system. Suppression of Sales (SOS) enables airlines to cancel an erroneous fare within 15 minutes for the US and Canadian markets, and within an hour for international markets.
Previously, if an airline filed an erroneous fare, it could only change that fare in FareManager at the next scheduled subscription (four times per day for domestic US and Canada flights, and once per day for international flights). Airlines could also contact major distributors such as Expedia, as well as Global Distribution Systems like Sabre and Amadeus, to have the fares removed manually, explained Tom Gregorson, chief strategy officer at ATPCO. “They would panic and they would start calling every single system they could get ahold of, and ask the system to manually try to take [the incorrect fare] out, and you can imagine that that’s not a very efficient process!” Those delays could end up costing an airline millions of dollars.
One way that airlines have responded to mistake fares is to simply stop selling tickets on a route, zeroing out inventory so that no mistake fare can be sold. That’s a blunt instrument versus suppressing the sale of a mistake fare.
It’s not clear that this means airlines will kill mistake fares faster, they already end them quickly once they become known. This is just another tool to do so more surgically. But it underscores that the tools are far more advanced than they used to be, which is why we see fewer of such fares than we did in the distant past. (Here are ten of my all-time favorite mistakes.)
My own view of mistake fares is that I’m happy to book them, airlines will choose to honor the deals or they won’t, but if they’re going to fly people to Paris for $28 I’d like to be one of those people.