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Delta, AirTran Fined for Pricing Mistakes

The Department of Transportation (DOT) levied small fines against AirTran and Delta for pricing mistakes. According to msnbc, AirTran was fined $20,000 for advertising a lower price than was actually available, and Delta was fined $40,000 for not clearly disclosing that taxes and fees weren't included in some base fares on its website.

The fines clearly won't make a dent in either airlines' bottom line, and actually seem sort of trivial when you consider that airline financials are usually discussed in terms of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

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But the point, I think, is that the DOT wants airlines to know it's watching them, and that no mistake will go unpunished. That has been the DOT's modus operandi lately, with recent fines against Continental and Southwest for various issues. Plus, the DOT probably knows people like me will write a story about it, therefore turning a slap-on-the-wrist fine into something customers will notice. If so, this ploy has clearly worked.

Here's what the DOT had to say about each:

The action against AirTran resulted from it advertising a fare that was not available.  On Feb. 16, 2010, AirTran posted a press release on its website advertising its “Leave the Blizzard Behind Sale.”  The sale lasted for 72 hours and applied for travel on AirTran before May 26, 2010.  The press release advertised fares “starting as low as $39” one-way.  However, an investigation by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office revealed that there were no seats available for $39 as part of the sale and that the lowest available fare for the sale was $44. 

The action against Delta involved the carrier’s failure to provide adequate notice of taxes and fees that were not included in certain base fares at the first point they were advertised on its website ... On Internet displays, airlines may prominently note that taxes and fees are extra, with that statement being a link that takes a consumer directly to a description of the nature and amount of those charges.  However, on some of Delta’s Internet displays, the statement that taxes and fees were extra was not a link and the link the carrier provided failed to refer consumers directly to a statement that did provide the required information on the additional taxes and fees.

In both cases the mistakes seem fairly innocent, which is not to say airlines are excused from listing their fares correctly. My sense is these infractions are worth a public lecture and a small fine. What do you think?

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