Why Airlines Usually Do Not Blacklist Customers Who Book Mistake Fares or Break Ticketing Rules: Possible Reasons

“I ’m not quite sure why airlines don’t blacklist customers that consistently book mistake fares or break the ticketing rules. Maybe they figure the bad publicity isn’t worth the revenue gain. Or maybe they can’t deny travel due to common carrier status, Anyone?”

Perhaps I can offer a possible explanation to this comment posted by TravelerMSY, who is a reader of View From The Wing and responded to this article written by Gary Leff.

First, let us review the word consistent as defined by the Oxford Dictionaries:

Acting or done in the same way over time, especially so as to be fair or accurate; unchanging in nature, standard, or effect over time

Mistake fares in and of themselves are not consistent. No airline offers them on a regular basis; and if they did, they would be known as sale fares. When a mistake fare does appear, it could take as few as mere minutes — or as much as several days — before it is corrected.

Second, what exactly defines a mistake fare? Is there a difference between a mistake fare and an incorrect price? Would a recent airfare of approximately $580.00 between Atlanta and Marrakech — now currently $906.00 — be considered a mistake fare? It was not advertised, to my knowledge — but what if I had purchased it?

That leads to whether or not an airline honors mistake fares; and they usually do. Perhaps mistake fares can be considered “loss leaders” of sorts — similar to those found in supermarkets, for example…

…but that is really not a fair comparison. A fairer comparison would be a policy of one supermarket chain in the United States that is highly rated which has a policy that if the price marked on the item which you are purchasing is incorrect when it is scanned, you get to keep that item free of charge. Does that mean that the supermarket should ban you from shopping there if you continuously take advantage of that policy?

Additionally, booking a mistake fare and “breaking the ticketing rules” are vastly different. When an airline honors a mistake fare, a contract is created because both parties agree to the terms and conditions of the transaction. Does that mean that taking advantage of a mistake fare — especially after the airline agrees to honor it — could be considered unethical?

If an airline does not honor a mistake fare, the purchaser might argue that a contract had already been created at the time of purchase; or it might be in violation of the rules set forth by the Department of Transportation of the United States — but for the sake of argument, let us not consider mistake fares which are not honored for this article. Let us simply assume that the person purchasing the mistake fare followed all of the rules set forth by the policies of the airline…

…but purposely violating the ticketing rules is another matter, as the purchaser is intentionally attempting to defraud the airline. While attempting to realize the difference between a mistake fare and a great sale fare is not always easy, there is usually no mistaking an attempt to purposely violating the rules set forth by the airline.

As for publicity, honoring a mistake fare can lead to good publicity for an airline. Potential customers might interpret that as that the airline is interested in satisfying their passengers despite the potential disadvantage of losing money. An airline not honoring a mistake fare could bring negative publicity. As with the other aspects of mistake fares, the publicity surrounding them — positive or negative — is far from consistent as well. Each mistake fare brings potential opportunities and shortcomings to both the airline and the consumer…

…but of course, there is the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Etihad Airways received quite a bit of attention in the media with the Christmas Day mistake fares which were eventually honored — and if the mistake fares prompted people who never were passengers on flights operated by Etihad Airways, then this was a golden opportunity for Etihad Airways to possibly gain some new customers should they really like the product and service offered.

I have heard time and time again that frequent fliers — such as those who are members of Milepoint and FlyerTalk — are merely a small percentage of the customer base of airlines. If that is indeed true, then a logical corollary to that assertion would be to conclude that people who take advantage of mistake fares are an even smaller percentage of customers. I have no facts or figures which definitively state that airlines profit more in the long term or lose a substantial amount of money in the short term as a result of honoring mistake fares; but I also do not believe that honoring mistake fares breaks the bank either…

…but if people who consistently violate the ticketing rules of an airline are indeed that few and far between, then it is probably not usually worth the time, money and effort which might be required in order for an airline to pursue and take action to blacklist those customers except in the most egregious of situations; and — unlike the purchase of mistake fares — violating the ticketing rules of an airline can be done on a consistent basis until the rules are officially amended by the airline.

Another consideration is that if an airline blacklisted customers for taking advantage of purchasing a mistake fare, it would not typically result in negative publicity for an airline unless the customers embarked on a campaign which caught the attention of the media — and even then, I am not certain that the general public would be interested in such a story.

However, if an airline blacklisted customers who consistently and purposely violated the ticketing rules of an airline — and if that can be proven — there typically would be no negative publicity for the airline as a result. If someone violates rules or breaks the law, it is reasonable to assume that that person should be appropriately penalized.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the aforementioned scenarios; but in a competitive environment such as commercial aviation, decisions must constantly be made pertaining to how resources should be pooled and used — and I am not certain that blacklisting customers who purchase mistake fares or violate the ticketing rules is high enough on the list of priorities for an airline…

3 thoughts on “Why Airlines Usually Do Not Blacklist Customers Who Book Mistake Fares or Break Ticketing Rules: Possible Reasons”

  1. Richard says:

    I totally disagree with your comment that “mistake fares will not break the bank” If the recent UA first class mistake fares had been honored a conservative estimate was UA would have lost 5 MILLION dollars! Also, hidden city tickets are purposely done to beat the airline and should be punished. I feel anybody who pursues these things knows what they are doing and deserves what they get. Also, we all know what constitutes a mistake fare, ie. LHR to LAX in F for $399!

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Including $74 million of special items, five million dollars — assuming that number is indeed true — represents fewer than one percent of the reported net income of $508 million for the first quarter of 2015 for United Airlines, according to their official financial statement:


      Five million dollars may break the bank for you or for me, Richard; and I would agree that it is a lot of money — but it is currently a mere drop in the bucket for United Airlines.

      I have also stated that it is not always clear as to what is and what is not a mistake fare, which makes it difficult to consistently book them.

      Thank you for your comments, Richard; but I stand by my statements.

  2. Tony A. says:

    UA’s LHR-LAX (or other US cities) in F for $399 or even less was NOT a mistake fare.
    The fare was actually correctly filed. You could check the fare in GBP, USD, DKK or NUC; they were all correct. The low ticket price was a result of a GLITCH in the Denmark Krone to US Dollar conversion in their own (UA’s website). If you actually priced the ticket in GB Pounds or US Dollar, it would have been correct.

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