Mistake-fare rule of thumb: do not call

If any of you have become regular readers of “Business Insider”, you might have have read about an incredible $74 round-trip price from Newark to London in business class. In their article on February 11 at 8:39 am they had the following things to say about this “deal.”

This might be the deal of the year.

United Airlines is offering travelers first-class tickets from London to Newark, roundtrip, for 487 Danish krone. At 6.58 krone per dollar, that comes out to $74. Newark is just minutes outside of New York City. DansDeals found this first.

(The original article can be found here: United Airlines First Class Tickets )

I have a few problems with this. Firstly, the author is referring to this as a deal that “United airlines is offering.” My first reaction was that such a phrase did not seem a very genuine description of what was most likely going on. At least in my opinion it implies that United offered these rates intentionally. But…I’ll get to that later.

I don’t see these fares as deals offered by anyone. I see them as glitches that a person could potentially take advantage of, but that the person is not entitled to.

In my niche, we call these glitches “mistake-fares.” They are fares that the airline does not intend to offer, but because of a glitch in the pricing process, the price gets listed and programmed as much lower than intended. Often times it’s a coding issue of some kind, leaving off a fuel surcharge for instance.

No surprise, just a few hours later Business Insider UK reported that the “deal” was dead.

That is indeed the norm for such “deals,” or rather, mistakes. The reality is, these prices only last until the airline or aggregator realizes the issue and fixes it. And the more people are chatting about the deals online or in widely-read media outlets such as Business Insider, and the more people who are purchasing the fare, the more quickly the airline or aggregator will catch on to the issue.

Now, I have no problem with a great deal getting exposure so that lots of people can take advantage of it, (if the airline ultimately decides to honor the rate). The risk however, is that someone may misunderstand the glitch as an intentional deal and may try to call the airline asking about it.

There are all sorts of reasons people call when they’re booking a trip. Perhaps a person can’t find availability for the time they’re interested in or perhaps they want to make sure the rate will be honored.

But the key thing to realize with these mistake fares is that they are (except perhaps in a few suspicious cases that look a bit like publicity stunts) almost certainly unintentional. And therefore not a single person is entitled to anything more than a refund. Thus, the airline in no way needs to help you understand or book this accidental fare.

I can’t be more clear about this: if you are booking a mistake-fare like this one, do not call the airline to ask about it unless you genuinely wish to end the deal. If you feel a moral obligation to let the airline know about the mistake-rate so that they can end it, then I am certainly not going to be the person to tell you not to do that. Go for it. But that is the only effect calling will have.

You can consider this my little “mistake-fare” PSA: if you call the airline about its mistake-fare, they will shut the rate down.

Now, earlier I referenced a bit of distaste for how Business Insider referred to the fare as something United was offering. But since my initial read-through of BI’s article, I came across another article by View From The Wing that sheds light on why an author might not describe such a deal as a mistake-fare.

According to VFTW’s article, the DOT is possibly reconsidering its current stance holding airlines accountable t0 honor such fares. Apparently the DOT is seeking a way to defend the consumers who honestly think the low rate is a real rate while not letting other consumers (who see through it as a mistake) get away with knowingly taking advantage of the mistaken rate. While I can’t begin to fathom what the DOT will end up doing about this concern, the distinction between consumers who are naive of a mistake and those who are suspicious of it seems to provide an incentive for journalists and bloggers to remain vague about low rates, publishing no assumptions as to whether or not the rate is a mistake.

Whether or not Business Insider knows that this rate was most likely a mistake, I have no idea. But when you see a rate that’s too good to be true, know that it probably is. And therefore, don’t call the airline about it and, if you want to be extra cautious, don’t publish anything online about it either!


Posted by | Comments Off on Mistake-fare rule of thumb: do not call  | February 11, 2015
Category: General

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