Last week I posted my thoughts about airline mistake fares in response to Scott McCartney’s excellent "Middle Seat" column in the Wall Street Journal on the same subject. Today, Christopher Elliott decided to chime in. While I prefer not not even bring up his name, he provides so much fodder in his thoughts on the subject that I would be remiss for not addressing them.
If you found a bargain airfare, you’d book it, right?
But what if you knew the price was a mistake? Would you still do it?
In an era of too-good-to-be-true prices, gimmicky discounts and even an occasional zero fare, travelers have to make that call every day.
This is exactly why there is nothing ethically suspect about booking "mistake" fares. In this era of £0.00 Ryanair base fares, there is no such thing as a fare that is too low.
…William Sannwald, a lecturer at San Diego State University, says both a company and its customers have an obligation to determine if an offer is accurate. “With all the unethical things taking place in business today,” he says, “I think that customers need to be vigilant in any transaction.” And flexible, too. “We all make mistakes, and a reasonable person should understand this,” he added.
Yes, reasonable people understand that mistakes are made–but the question is how we address those mistakes. Can we decide three days after booking a non-refundable ticket that we purchased the ticket by mistake? Sure, but we’ll lose the value of the ticket or be stuck with a $250 change fee. Why should it be any different with the airlines?
…By way of full disclosure, I thought the travelers who bought tickets knowing the fare was foul were morally challenged. In a blog comment, I referred to them as “bottom feeders,” which may have been a little harsh. I probably just should have called them criminals.
Sure Chris. We’re criminals because we booked a ticket offered by an airline at a discounted price. Great logic. Do you really think I am a thief for booking a $540 ticket to India on British Airways because the base fare was only $40? Not when "fuel surcharges" and other fees are masked as ancillary to the fare. Truth is, that fare was more than $40 and airline accounting tricks frequently disguise the true base fare for a ticket.
…But what if you don’t know? Jonathan Burgstone, an adjunct professor at the University of California’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, says that’s different. “If the customer is genuinely unaware of the mistake, then he or she could reasonably accept the transaction,” he says. “A reasonable-minded person can generally assume that an advertised price is correct.”
And a reasonable minded person can thus conclude that airlines should honor fare mistakes for each person who ticketed for the very reason outline above–it is impossible to gauge the mindset of the customer when he purchased the ticket. Condemning the ethics of those who knowingly take advantage of a fare "they should have known" was too good to be true still rings hollow to me, but ethical condemnation is different than practical adjudication.
…Ever heard of the saying, “You get what you pay for”? When it comes to pricing errors, that may be particularly true. A price that’s far lower than those of competitors can be assumed to be either wrong or defective (or both).
Hmm. I just did a random search for a o/w to LAX-LHR in Mid April (see below). Air New Zealand came back ~30% cheaper than any competitor. Is that fare wrong or defective?
What about Mexicana’s recent heavily-discounted Business Class fare sale to Buenos Aires and Cancun? Tickets were thousands of dollars cheaper than the competition. Should we have refrained from booking?
…If you want to hedge your bets, and are planning hotel reservations, consider booking a more expensive, refundable ticket — just in case. “When the offerer discovers its error, take the compensation and consider it your winnings,” he says. “This won’t always work, but I do believe it’s your best shot.”
Sure, because I just have an extra $2,500+ sitting around for a refundable ticket.
…But there’s a significant disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. I asked Stephen Martin, a professor at the University of Denver’s business school, to poll his students about what they would have done if offered an erroneous fare. Although 90 percent believed buying an erroneous fare was unethical, a majority said they’d do it anyway…In other words, we can talk about ethics until the cows come home. But once we’re on a plane, many of us jettison our values right out the cabin door.
I go back to my statement above. When airlines frequently offer $0 base fares or other sales to draw in customers, how are we to know a fare is a mistake or just a good deal? We don’t. And even if we "should have," the ramifications of allowing airlines to cancel tickets at will presents a far greater problem than the faux moral outrage of a newspaper columnist questioning the ethics of those who take advantage of fares that airlines file.