Did you hear about United’s “mistake fares” earlier this month: business- and first-class tickets from the U.K. mistakenly priced at $100 or less? Many thousands of travelers did, and gleefully rushed to book trips at the ridiculously low fares. United was not amused and promptly voided their tickets.
The wrath of spurned deal-seekers was swift and vociferous. The DOT was deluged with complaints from the would-be bargain flyers, prompting a formal ruling by the regulatory agency on United’s actions.
It was, for the DOT, a tricky case. On the one hand, there’s a Department rule in place that requires airlines to honor any fares they publish, even if they’re later deemed to have been published in error. The rule’s intent is to prevent airlines from raising fares after they’re marketed, which would amount to bait-and-switch. That rule would, seemingly, support ticket buyers’ contention that their purchases should not have been invalidated.
On the other hand, as a common-sense matter, the DOT didn’t want to encourage consumers’ capitalizing on an airline’s errors. Good-faith mistakes should be recognized as such.
The DOT’s final word: “After a careful review of the matter, including the thousands of submissions from consumers and information from United, the Enforcement Office has decided that it will not take action against United for not honoring the tickets.”
The DOT’s rationalization turned on a technicality. Because the mistake fares appeared on United’s Denmark website, and consumers identified themselves as Denmark residents when booking, the DOT’s protections, which are limited to fares marketed to U.S. consumers, simply don’t apply.
Furthermore, because the tickets were purchased under false pretenses, there was clear evidence of bad faith by U.S. consumers.
So, in this case at least, United got a pass. It remains to be seen how the DOT will rule on future cases of mistake fares that can’t be dismissed on technicalities. And that uncertainty is a problem. Whether airlines should honor mistake fares can be argued either way. Consumers deserve clarity on which way the DOT will have it.
Reader Reality Check
Should the DOT have forced United to honor the mistake fares in this case? Should mistake fares be honored in general?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.