A German court has ruled that websites can be fined and owners jailed for publishing so-called “mistake” fares.
The ruling comes out of Bavaria, a more conservative and business-friendly region of the German Republic.
Lufthansa sued a travel website for publishing this headline:
ERROR FARE: Business Class to California with Lufthansa and Co. for only 687 €
Lufthansa had mistakenly filed the fare, which is normally about 5x that price. It argued:
- Publishing mistake fares exacerbates the problem by opening the floodgates to thousands of otherwise clueless participants
- Correcting mistake fares is not an instant process (especially on nights and weekends)
- Error fares bring unfair legal fees and litigation costs to the airline
- Error fares, when not honored, hurt the airline’s public image
The court agreed.
The defendant acts unfairly, because it consciously exploits a recognizable mistake of the plaintiff and thus creates a significant competitive disadvantage for the plaintiff.
While the defendant was only slapped with legal fees in this case, future violations will result in a EUR250,000 fine or six months in prison.
A Narrow Ruling
If there is any solace in this ruling, it is in its narrow scope. From the way I read it, the issue was not publishing the fare itself, but calling it an error fare, thus knowingly exploiting a ticket Lufthansa never intended to offer.
I suspect this website and others can continue to publish potential mistake fares…they simply cannot call them mistake fares.
Just What is a Mistake Fare?
Over and over, I’ve asked just what constitutes a mistake fare? Where is the line? What is the magic number when a good fare becomes a mistake?
I continue to assert that consumers should not have to know this and that airlines should have the same rights as customers: no more and no less. In terms of booking fares in the USA, that means an airline has up to 24 hours to rescind a fare if travel is more than seven days away.
If I accidentally book a non-refundable ticket for travel to Frankfurt tomorrow on Lufthansa and realize it was a mistake, I’m out of luck. There is no mercy. There is no grace. Meanwhile, Lufthansa can wait weeks before cancelling a fare. That is poor public policy.
You can read the entire decision here (in German). I do not like the ruling, but at least appreciate its narrow scope. The same website can continue to publicize deals Lufthansa would deem mistake fares. The only prohibition: it cannot call it a mistake fare.