Why Airline Mistake Fares Have Become So Rare

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.

Now there are new tools to kill mistake fares quickly when they do happen. (HT: Point Me to the Plane)

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.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] Since we don’t know for certain how Virgin will feel about such a deep discount airfare sale, whether they might get seller’s remorse, I’d wait a few days after buying additional travel or making additional non-refundable plans around the fare. (Thrifty Traveler calls this a mistake fare but I wouldn’t choose to characterize it that way, here’s why mistake fares have become rare.) […]


  1. Mistake fares are nice and might change my trip plans around otherwise, but not essential to enjoying travel. I’m glad I got to take advantage of the ANA mistake fare to Australia a couple of years ago, but I really don’t stress or cry about them.

  2. What Gary didn’t tell you is that readers and travel bloggers are responsible for killing these ‘deals’.

    Readers because we took advantage of the deal. I’m guilty of this.
    Travel Bloggers because they blasted it out to their readers.

    Dear Agatha Christie…. if you don’t get the reference, google Agatha Christie.

  3. @dhammer53 mistake fares became less common ten years ago before there were many blogs covering this space at all. Mistake fares didn’t die in the first seven years of my writing about them. By the way airlines monitor the Flyertalk mileage run forum to learn about these things.

  4. Boy I miss the good ol days. Before everyone and their grandmother started flooding flyertalk forum and idiots started making YouTube videos about how to game the system. The mad scramble to book mistake fares before the airlines figured it out and then hoping you won’t show up to the airport with a cancelled ticket. I saw a lot of the world on mistake fares. . #goodtimes

  5. Agree with dhammer53 – the *proliferation* of blogs (and also other sites such as SecretFlying) has been a contributing factor – not the only one, but definitely a part of it. To claim otherwise is simply denial. This is because such posts not only add to the number of folks booking such fares, but they throw a spotlight on the mistake in a way that may embarrass the airline – or at least managers of those responsible for the error – and compel them to take a hard line. It’s one thing to screw up and a few people find out about it – another to screw up when everyone and his brother is shouting from the electronic rooftops about it.

    Again, there are several factors, and I’ve booked and flown mistake fares, too, so I don’t claim innocence either. But bloggers failing to have some self-reflection on their own role is silly.

    Btw it also doesn’t help with mistake fares that aren’t crazy-good, and arguably not an apparent mistake, are still labeled “mistake” or “error” fares by everyone. Sure, $28 to Paris would be obvious, but not all of them are that clear-cut – we don’t help ourselves with the sloppy adjectives.

  6. Publicizing deals seems like a reason they might be **taken down more quickly**. But the issue here is why they don’t exist as often in the first place.

    And the clear reason for that is the introduction of new tools to help airlines avoid these mistakes, starting a decade ago, long before the proliferation of sites beyond Flyertalk.

  7. Seems pretty straightforward. Mistake fares have a monetary cost to airlines. There is a technological fix which has an implementation cost. If the cost of the mistake fares substantially exceeds the cost of the preventing them then you would expect the airlines to pursue the fix.

    In the more-perfect marketplace brought about by internet information sharing (including FlyerTalk and blogs) it’s reasonable to imagine that the cost to the airlines for an honored mistake fare is ten or a hundred times what it was before. Previously a few individuals might have found the fares. Now they probably sell their entire inventory of mistake fares in twenty-four hours. That substantially changes the analysis around the decision to invest in anti-error technology and that appears to be exactly what we’re seeing — with the expected lag time of the several years it takes to update such complex, mission-critical systems.

  8. @Ryan

    Regarding self-reflection: Eh, I don’t think it matters. This is tech generation, and things “go viral” faster than the speed of light. It used to be if you were screwing around on your wife, the neighborhood knew. Now, the whole world knows in the blink of an eye. Is it your fault for screwing around on your wife, or your neighbors’ fault for telling?

  9. My own view of mistakes is identical to your own. If my local Best Buy mistakenly leaves the back door open I’m certainly going to go in and take a big screen TV or two.

  10. @andrew – this is more akin to putting your name on a list to say you’d like a deal on a TV if best buy decides to offer them at an absurdly cheap price.

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