Incorrect Prices and Mistake Fares: What is The Difference?

 read with interest an article posted by John Baker at Elliott earlier today which offers advice pertaining to How to get a company to honor an incorrect price — maybe — and it uses the example of customers purchasing a diamond necklace on sale from the catalog of Macy’s for $47.00 where it normally sells for $1,500.00.

The first thought which came to my mind was when someone who claimed to be an “insider” allegedly told Christopher Elliott almost two years ago about FlyerTalk members who took advantage of a low airfare in the business class cabin for flights originating in Yangon: “Instead of the space going to real executives who could create jobs, the space went to FlyerTalk idiots. That is beyond stealing for me” and that “booking a stopover in the United States to take advantage of American consumer-protection laws and handling the sale through Expedia’s German site, which for some reason displayed the mistake fare long after the U.S. sites had removed it.”

That quote was extracted from an article titled Attack of the airfare thieves.

Color me confused, please: what is the difference of taking advantage of a pricing error at a department store and a mistake fare from an airline — and even though the articles were posted by two different authors, why would articles with conflicting advice be posted at the same weblog?

I asked only four days ago if there was a question of ethics involved when purchasing mistake fares. Interestingly enough, Etihad Airways intends to honor the airfare accidentally released early in the morning on Christmas Day, according to this article written by Ted Reed for Forbes Magazine

…but what if Etihad Airways refused to honor the mistake fare? Would that be a violation of the rules by the Department of Transportation of the United States because the flights originated there?

Gary Leff of View From The Wing posted this interesting article back on Tuesday, June 3, 2014 pertaining to the Department of Transportation reviewing possible revisions of its rules to protect consumers in order to give airlines more opportunities to renege on mistake fares. If that happens, would Etihad Airways and other airlines still honor mistake fares voluntarily?

“Consumer pricing law varies not only by country but, in the U.S., also by state”, John Baker wrote in his article. “The National Institute of Standards and Technology has taken the time to consolidate the laws of all 50 states into one document.”

Do those consumer laws cover airfares as well? If so, why are there special rules from the Department of Transportation in the first place?

As I mentioned in this article posted back in August, I have always been an advocate of showing the total price of anything to the consumer whenever possible to avoid surprises, as I believe in transparency for customers — including passengers of airlines. The aforementioned rules and pricing laws are meant to protect consumers from the practice of “bait-and-switch” advertising where you are lured by what seems to be an incredible deal — only to be denied by the company which “offered” it but now has you in its store or at its official Internet web site.

Mistake Fare or Legitimate Airfare?

The question is whether or not consumers should be able and permitted to use the aforementioned rules and pricing laws to their advantage when it comes to incorrect pricing and mistake fares. The problem is — except for the most obvious cases — how can anyone prove that a consumer actually knew that an airfare or price of an item or service is actually a mistake?

Please answer this question without peeking: is the following headline of an article which was posted earlier today describing a mistake fare or a legitimate airfare purposely offered to customers?

London to Germany and Ireland – at £17.82 all-in return

That sounds like a pretty good deal, right? The writer of that article called that airfare “remarkable”…

…so was it a pricing error? Click on the link above to find out.

Even if you do not click on the link, I use that as one of myriad examples of airfares which could be considered mistake fares or legitimate deals. Can you really tell the difference between a mistake fare and a legitimate bargain airfare? Should you as a consumer be required to be burdened to know the difference?


Repeating what I wrote four days ago in conclusion to this article: if the customer purposely used nefarious means to procure an airfare, then it is clearly unethical and probably can be considered stealing; but if the customer can simply book an airfare at a typical Internet travel agency — as that person normally would — and get an unusually low airfare, I would argue that ethics are not part of the equation. Rather, the customer is most likely simply seeking a great deal — as many of us attempt to do; and most likely on a daily basis as consumers…

…and what is wrong with that — especially if the provider of the product or service agrees to honor the transaction?

Perhaps airlines should be more prudent in ensuring that the airfares are correct before they are published — just as other businesses are required to do the same. There are laws in countries where businesses must honor the price offered for a reason — to protect the consumer from “bait and switch” advertising and other potentially deceptive practices. The consumer should not have to be burdened with a moral dilemma over the ethics of taking advantage of a low price; nor should he or she perform research to investigate the origin of a low price every time one is available — airfares or otherwise.

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