Mistake Fares: Are FlyerTalk Members “Idiots” Who Steal — or Smart Consumers?
“Instead of the space going to real executives who could create jobs, the space went to FlyerTalk idiots. That is beyond stealing for me.”
This is what an “insider” allegedly told Christopher Elliott about FlyerTalk members who not only took advantage of a low airfare in the business class cabin for flights originating in Yangon, but also “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.”
This was not the first time that FlyerTalk members took advantage of this offer, as a similar “deal” was posted a few months earlier for flights originating from Yangon in Myanmar — reportedly approximately $150.00 less expensive for seats in the first class cabin.
Christopher Elliott was apparently lambasted by his readers for not offering assistance to “Lauren”, whose ticket was allegedly canceled by Expedia only a few days before her scheduled flight from Myanmar to Vancouver on All Nippon Airways without informing her, forcing her to use 140,000 frequent flier loyalty program miles to purchase another seat at the last minute while losing a night at a hotel in Tokyo.
Assuming we introduce law into this discussion and Christopher Elliott were a judge, if Lauren were to sue Expedia in a courtroom and admit that she — as Christopher Elliott says — “knowingly stole from a business that has, in the past, mistreated her”, then the doctrine of “clean hands” would most likely be considered in this case where a plaintiff must be free from unfair or illegal conduct with regard to his or her claim:
“A rule of law that a person coming to court with a lawsuit or petition for a court order must be free from unfair conduct (have “clean hands’ or not have done anything wrong) in regard to the subject matter of his/her claim. His/her activities not involved in the legal action can be abominable because they are considered irrelevant. As an affirmative defense (positive response) a defendant might claim the plaintiff (party suing him/her) has a ‘lack of clean hands’ or ‘violates the clean hands doctrine’ because the plaintiff has misled the defendant or has done something wrong regarding the matter under consideration. Example: A former partner sues on a claim that he was owed money on a consulting contract with the partnership when he left, but the defense states that the plaintiff (party suing) has tried to get customers from the partnership by spreading untrue stories about the remaining partner’s business practices.”
If we further assume that “Lauren” absolutely and undeniably “stole” from either the airline or Expedia, then Christopher Elliott would be correct in not assisting her for resolution in her favor to the situation which she had faced…
…but is it really clear that “Lauren” is a “thief”, as Christopher Elliott calls her? She learned about the airfare on FlyerTalk. Does that make her an “idiot”?
For years, there has been what could be perceived as an ethical dilemma for what are known as mistake fares — airfares which were erroneously published publicly before being pulled as quickly as possible.
If I attempt to purchase an item at Publix — a supermarket chain based in Florida with stores located in five states in the southeastern United States — where the product is scanned incorrectly at the checkout register, Publix promises and guarantees that if during checkout, the scanned price of an item exceeds the shelf price or advertised price, Publix will give me one of that item free. The remaining items will be charged at the lower price. This policy excludes alcohol and tobacco products.
Of course, that is a policy Publix publicly posts pertaining to potentially perceivable perfunctory product pricing procedures, perhaps — but what if you saw a fresh filet mignon normally priced at $20.00 marked at $5.00? Would you purchase it, report what could be a pricing error, or ignore it? If you purchased it, are you “stealing” it? Is there any difference if the price was $10.00, or even $15.00 instead of $20.00? Would you tell your friends to take advantage of this deal?
What about the case of Danny Sawyer, who reportedly purchased a new Chevrolet Traverse vehicle from a car dealership in Virginia for $5,000.00 less than the manufacturer’s retail price of approximately $39,000.00? When staff at the car dealership supposedly attempted to convince Sawyer to sign a new contract closer to the intended sale price of the vehicle and Sawyer refused, the employees reportedly called the police and arrested Sawyer.
Did Sawyer steal the vehicle, as the employees of the car dealership allegedly accused him of doing? After all, Sawyer supposedly did not engage in purposely attempting to defraud the car dealership — they prepared the contract, not Sawyer. Sawyer signed the original contract. Is it his fault that the contract was probably not prepared properly with due diligence by employees of the car dealership? What did Sawyer originally think when he saw the lower price on the contract — if he saw the lower price before signing the contract, that is?
Am I missing something here, perhaps?…
…and who is to say that the $600.00 airfare in business class from Yangon was not a mistake? What if the currency exchange rate had something to do with the airfare? What if the airfare was purposely published to entice people to visit and help boost a sagging local economy? Are FlyerTalk members supposed to start doing this kind of research every time a low airfare is published? What is the threshold between error and actual intended airfare?
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, as with the filet mignon in the supermarket and the vehicle at the car dealership. 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 — airfares or otherwise…
…and guess what? Mistake fares are fewer and farther between — and not as “obvious” — because airlines are being more prudent about ensuring that the airfares are correct before they are published. If the erroneous airfare is not published, then no one can take advantage of a mistake fare in the first place — right?!?
In fact — if I were the chief executive officer of an airline — I would consider purposely releasing a “mistake fare” publicly for a predetermined period of time and honor all purchases without announcing it, and I would consider doing this occasionally. This would cause potential customers to constantly look for airfares on my airline, never knowing when they might “strike gold” — and if they find a decent airfare along the way on my airline while searching, they just might book it. I would get plenty of free publicity as well. Could it work? I do not know — but I would certainly try it out and see for myself.
Thankfully, Christopher Elliott is not a judge. He has every right to choose for whom he wants to help resolve issues — and deny assisting those people whose actions are not aligned with his moral fiber. I respect him for that — regardless of whether or not I agree with him. I certainly do not agree with his analogy that “Pointing out a fare error online and urging people to book one is like saying someone’s house isn’t locked and urging everyone to steal from it.”
However, Christopher Elliott is not the final arbiter of what is considered “stealing” and what is considered “right” when it comes to mistake fares. The airlines and Internet travel agencies decide the final outcomes — as long as their decisions are within the law…
…and guess what? These mistake fare “deals” have often been honored by airlines and Internet travel agencies — sometimes with a smile, believe it or not. Scores of FlyerTalk members will verify this, as FlyerTalk members have taken advantage of mistake fares for years.
An example of a mistake fare being honored by an airline is the now-legendary $33.00 business class airfare on Alitalia from Toronto to Larnaca in Cyprus for fewer that $200.00, including all taxes and fees. Representatives of Alitalia ultimately handled this mistake with aplomb, treating those who took advantage of this mistake fare as though they paid in full for a regular business class airfare. Not once did they call those passengers thieves, or accuse them of stealing from Alitalia.
Other examples of legendary mistake airfares which were successfully honored include:
- JFK-KEF (Keflavik, Iceland) $61 at cheaptickets.com
- LAX-NAN (Nadi, Fiji) – $51 all in – Travelocity! (fare gone – discussion only)
- FARE GONE! – US: LEB (Lebanon, NH) to just about anywhere USA Fares – $2-$22
- (fare gone) Air Europa: BOS – MAD $115
- (FARE GONE) Cheap ORD/MAN Z Class tickets
- (FARE GONE) NYC-Rome ~285 AI on AF
Not that it is germane to countering the argument by Christopher Elliott, but there are impediments to taking advantage of a mistake fare — including but not limited to:
- Booking flights to position yourself to the origination if you are located nowhere near it
- Ensuring that your schedule permits you to take immediate advantage of booking the mistake airfare before it is withdrawn
- The cost of lodging and other expenses once you arrive at your destination — even if attempting a quick turnaround as part of a “mileage run”
- Whether or not frequent flier loyalty program miles can be earned on those mistake fares — and yes, there are FlyerTalk members who might forgo taking advantage of the mistake fare for this reason
- In extremely rare instances, taking advantage of a mistake fare can be dangerous — such as this airplane crash in Myanmar where three people were killed
The cost, effort and time associated with some of the above potential impediments can hinder the desire to book a mistake fare. For example, a $600.00 mistake fare in business class from Yangon might initially be a fantastic deal — but if the positioning flight costs $1,500.00 and it takes ten hours to get there, it is not so appealing after all.
There are FlyerTalk members who did not take advantage of the $51.00 airfare to Fiji solely because many hotel room rates were greater than $300.00 per night — and then there are the costs of transportation from the airport, meals, taxes, fees and other incidentals which suddenly rendered the $51.00 airfare not such a bargain anymore.
What I am attempting to say is that not all that many people get to take advantage of mistake fares in the first place — and when factoring in some of the potential impediments to a mistake fare, it really takes a lot of work to pull it off.
Of course, one maxim FlyerTalk members who take advantage of mistake fares follow is to “book now and plan later” — and if it does not work, airlines and Internet travel agencies will usually refund your money at no charge with no hassle…
…except in cases such as that of “Lauren”, who took a risk and failed — somewhat, anyway, as Christopher Elliott noted that she was “fortunate” that the experience only cost her 140,000 frequent flier loyalty program miles to purchase another seat at the last minute while losing a night at a hotel in Tokyo.
However, discussing about the best ways FlyerTalk members attempt to take advantage of mistake fares — and the impediments in doing so — does not address the supposed ethical and moral dilemma posed here:
Is taking advantage of mistake fares stealing, as according to Christopher Elliott??
What do you think?