A first-class ticket to London for $100? Surely that’s a mistake. On that, everyone agrees. But having published that fare, as United did earlier this year, should the airline be forced to honor tickets purchased at that price? That’s been a matter of considerable dispute.
In 2012, the DOT issued a ruling that airlines could not raise the price of a ticket after it had been purchased at a published price. That seems fair and reasonable on its face. If a company offers its product at a certain price and a consumer pays that price for the product, it’s a done deal. No bait-and-switch; no take-backs.
An unintended consequence of that prohibition was that it seemed to require that airlines honor the ridiculously low prices, widely known as mistake fares, occasionally published in error. Like those $100 United tickets.
To escape the self-created bind, the DOT on May 8 issued a notice of “Enforcement Policy Regarding Mistaken Fares” (.pdf) that more or less definitively defines its position on the matter. It reads, in part:
As a matter of prosecutorial discretion, the Enforcement Office will not enforce the requirement of section 399.88 with regard to mistaken fares occurring on or after the date of this notice so long as the airline or seller of air transportation: (1) demonstrates that the fare was a mistaken fare; and (2) reimburses all consumers who purchased a mistaken fare ticket for any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase, in addition to refunding the purchase price of the ticket. These expenses include, but are not limited to, non-refundable hotel reservations, destination tour packages or activities, cancellation fees for non-refundable connecting air travel and visa or other international travel fees.
In other words, airlines need not honor mistake fares, but they must compensate consumers who purchase them for any costs they incur and reimburse them for the cost of the mispriced tickets.
The DOT is vague on some points, such as the definition of a mistake fare and exactly what expenses mistake-fare purchasers can expect to be reimbursed for. But the notice stresses that it is a temporary measure, “and will remain in effect only until the Department issues a final rule that specifically addresses mistaken fares,” at which point more specificity can be expected. For now, it clearly signals the DOT’s intention, which accords with the common-sense notion that mistakes are so-called for a reason.
There will still be mistake fares. And consumers will still purchase them. But based on the DOT’s new policy, it’s unlikely that anyone will be flying on them.
Reader Reality Check
Is the DOT’s position on mistake fares fair and reasonable?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.