What Can I Do When the Airline Screws Up?


Welcome to the Today in Travel Question of the Week. As always, you can submit a query below or via email.

Hi Carl,

British Airlines had an error in their website a few weeks ago and sold tickets to India at a much lower price than normal. I happened to be one customer who purchased a ticket from the British Airlines website on 10/02/2009 from NYC to Delhi for a total price of $568.96.

On the following week they announced that the ticket had been a computer error and that my flight was canceled. A few days later they said "as a gesture of good will" they'd offer a $300.00 credit to those who purchase another ticket to India within a year (the same ticket would now cost me $1,400 dollars!). I've called the airline and they say they will not honor my ticket and will refund my credit card (which they still have not done 13 days after I purchased it). My trip arrangements have been made and I no longer have a ticket.

Do I have the right to have this ticket honored? They still haven't refunded my card and I can't purchase another ticket without that refund.

I have made a complaint with Aviation Consumer Protection, which is studying the case and British Airlines has not returned my email.

Any advice? Please help!

Gisele

British Airways did indeed make an error a few weeks back, and accidentally sold tickets from the U.S. to India for as low as $40. This isn't the first time an airline has entered fares incorrectly, and sometimes airlines honor the underpriced fares. British Airways, however, chose not to do this, and canceled all the erroneous bookings. As Gisele mentions, the airline pledged to refund passengers who booked the tickets and offer a $300 credit on rebooked travel to India.

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As for Gisele's response to the situation, it seems she did everything she could. She contacted the airline, which sold her the tickets, and lodged a complaint with the appropriate government agency. I contacted British Airways, which advised customers to do exactly this: "British Airways … would urge them to contact their travel agent or British Airways, if they booked directly with the airline, to claim a refund and be offered alternative travel arrangements."

And whether as a result of her pressure or because of the media attention that followed British Airways' mistake, Gisele received her refund as this article was being written. Being proactive never hurts.

But while that offers some consolation, British Airways' mistake has nevertheless cost Gisele (and other travelers caught up in the airline's blunder) some serious cash. By opting for British Airways' false fare, Gisele likely passed up actual fares that were cheaper than what's available now. Here's a follow-up email from Gisele:

"After [receiving the refund] I purchased another ticket from another airline to guarantee my trip and follow my plans since I did not hear back from British Airlines regarding my complaint. I had seen other great deals [when booking the erroneous British Airways fare] and this issue with them has caused me to pay a lot more for my ticket than I would have if that hadn't happened, it's very unfortunate."

Technically, British Airways has no responsibility for this expense.

As for honoring the false fares, British Airways has the right to cancel fares for any reason. Its contract of carriage stipulates that if it does so, the airline must either provide alternate transportation at no extra charge or provide a refund, which implies that the $300 credit went above and beyond the basic requirements of the contract.

But while British Airways may have its legal ducks in a row on this issue, the ethics are still a bit fuzzy. British Airways would have taken a huge hit on those India fares, but it was the airline's mistake, not the customers'. The airline should have swallowed the cost of those fares, dodged all the bad PR, and spared its customers the expense and inconvenience of rebooking.

Readers, what do you think British Airways should have done? Have you ever been the victim of an airline mistake like this? Submit a comment below, and as always, please send along your travel questions for future installments of the Question of the Week. Thanks!

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