Mistake Fares: Are FlyerTalk Members “Idiots” Who Steal — or Smart Consumers?

“Instead of the space going to real executives who could create jobs, the space went to FlyerTalk idiots. That is beyond stealing for me.”

This is what an “insider” allegedly told Christopher Elliott about FlyerTalk members who not only took advantage of a low airfare in the business class cabin for flights originating in Yangon, but also “booking a stopover in the United States to take advantage of American consumer-protection laws and handling the sale through Expedia’s German site, which for some reason displayed the mistake fare long after the U.S. sites had removed it.”

This was not the first time that FlyerTalk members took advantage of this offer, as a similar “deal” was posted a few months earlier for flights originating from Yangon in Myanmar — reportedly approximately $150.00 less expensive for seats in the first class cabin.

Christopher Elliott was apparently lambasted by his readers for not offering assistance to “Lauren”, whose ticket was allegedly canceled by Expedia only a few days before her scheduled flight from Myanmar to Vancouver on All Nippon Airways without informing her, forcing her to use 140,000 frequent flier loyalty program miles to purchase another seat at the last minute while losing a night at a hotel in Tokyo.

Assuming we introduce law into this discussion and Christopher Elliott were a judge, if Lauren were to sue Expedia in a courtroom and admit that she — as Christopher Elliott says — “knowingly stole from a business that has, in the past, mistreated her”, then the doctrine of “clean hands” would most likely be considered in this case where a plaintiff must be free from unfair or illegal conduct with regard to his or her claim:

“A rule of law that a person coming to court with a lawsuit or petition for a court order must be free from unfair conduct (have “clean hands’ or not have done anything wrong) in regard to the subject matter of his/her claim. His/her activities not involved in the legal action can be abominable because they are considered irrelevant. As an affirmative defense (positive response) a defendant might claim the plaintiff (party suing him/her) has a ‘lack of clean hands’ or ‘violates the clean hands doctrine’ because the plaintiff has misled the defendant or has done something wrong regarding the matter under consideration. Example: A former partner sues on a claim that he was owed money on a consulting contract with the partnership when he left, but the defense states that the plaintiff (party suing) has tried to get customers from the partnership by spreading untrue stories about the remaining partner’s business practices.”

If we further assume that “Lauren” absolutely and undeniably “stole” from either the airline or Expedia, then Christopher Elliott would be correct in not assisting her for resolution in her favor to the situation which she had faced…

…but is it really clear that “Lauren” is a “thief”, as Christopher Elliott calls her? She learned about the airfare on FlyerTalk. Does that make her an “idiot”?

For years, there has been what could be perceived as an ethical dilemma for what are known as mistake fares — airfares which were erroneously published publicly before being pulled as quickly as possible.

If I attempt to purchase an item at Publix — a supermarket chain based in Florida with stores located in five states in the southeastern United States — where the product is scanned incorrectly at the checkout register, Publix promises and guarantees that if during checkout, the scanned price of an item exceeds the shelf price or advertised price, Publix will give me one of that item free. The remaining items will be charged at the lower price. This policy excludes alcohol and tobacco products.

Of course, that is a policy Publix publicly posts pertaining to potentially perceivable perfunctory product pricing procedures, perhaps — but what if you saw a fresh filet mignon normally priced at $20.00 marked at $5.00? Would you purchase it, report what could be a pricing error, or ignore it? If you purchased it, are you “stealing” it? Is there any difference if the price was $10.00, or even $15.00 instead of $20.00? Would you tell your friends to take advantage of this deal?

What about the case of Danny Sawyer, who reportedly purchased a new Chevrolet Traverse vehicle from a car dealership in Virginia for $5,000.00 less than the manufacturer’s retail price of approximately $39,000.00? When staff at the car dealership supposedly attempted to convince Sawyer to sign a new contract closer to the intended sale price of the vehicle and Sawyer refused, the employees reportedly called the police and arrested Sawyer.

Did Sawyer steal the vehicle, as the employees of the car dealership allegedly accused him of doing? After all, Sawyer supposedly did not engage in purposely attempting to defraud the car dealership — they prepared the contract, not Sawyer. Sawyer signed the original contract. Is it his fault that the contract was probably not prepared properly with due diligence by employees of the car dealership? What did Sawyer originally think when he saw the lower price on the contract — if he saw the lower price before signing the contract, that is?

Am I missing something here, perhaps?…

…and who is to say that the $600.00 airfare in business class from Yangon was not a mistake? What if the currency exchange rate had something to do with the airfare? What if the airfare was purposely published to entice people to visit and help boost a sagging local economy? Are FlyerTalk members supposed to start doing this kind of research every time a low airfare is published? What is the threshold between error and actual intended airfare?

Perhaps airlines should be more prudent in ensuring that the airfares are correct before they are published — just as other businesses are required to do the same, as with the filet mignon in the supermarket and the vehicle at the car dealership. There are laws in countries where businesses must honor the price offered for a reason — to protect the consumer from “bait and switch” advertising and other potentially deceptive practices. The consumer should not have to be burdened with a moral dilemma over the ethics of taking advantage of a low price — airfares or otherwise…

…and guess what? Mistake fares are fewer and farther between — and not as “obvious” — because airlines are being more prudent about ensuring that the airfares are correct before they are published. If the erroneous airfare is not published, then no one can take advantage of a mistake fare in the first place — right?!?

In fact — if I were the chief executive officer of an airline — I would consider purposely releasing a “mistake fare” publicly for a predetermined period of time and honor all purchases without announcing it, and I would consider doing this occasionally. This would cause potential customers to constantly look for airfares on my airline, never knowing when they might “strike gold” — and if they find a decent airfare along the way on my airline while searching, they just might book it. I would get plenty of free publicity as well. Could it work? I do not know — but I would certainly try it out and see for myself.

Thankfully, Christopher Elliott is not a judge. He has every right to choose for whom he wants to help resolve issues — and deny assisting those people whose actions are not aligned with his moral fiber. I respect him for that — regardless of whether or not I agree with him. I certainly do not agree with his analogy that “Pointing out a fare error online and urging people to book one is like saying someone’s house isn’t locked and urging everyone to steal from it.”

However, Christopher Elliott is not the final arbiter of what is considered “stealing” and what is considered “right” when it comes to mistake fares. The airlines and Internet travel agencies decide the final outcomes — as long as their decisions are within the law…

…and guess what? These mistake fare “deals” have often been honored by airlines and Internet travel agencies — sometimes with a smile, believe it or not. Scores of FlyerTalk members will verify this, as FlyerTalk members have taken advantage of mistake fares for years.

An example of a mistake fare being honored by an airline is the now-legendary $33.00 business class airfare on Alitalia from Toronto to Larnaca in Cyprus for fewer that $200.00, including all taxes and fees. Representatives of Alitalia ultimately handled this mistake with aplomb, treating those who took advantage of this mistake fare as though they paid in full for a regular business class airfare. Not once did they call those passengers thieves, or accuse them of stealing from Alitalia.

Other examples of legendary mistake airfares which were successfully honored include:

Not that it is germane to countering the argument by Christopher Elliott, but there are impediments to taking advantage of a mistake fare — including but not limited to:

  • Booking flights to position yourself to the origination if you are located nowhere near it
  • Ensuring that your schedule permits you to take immediate advantage of booking the mistake airfare before it is withdrawn
  • The cost of lodging and other expenses once you arrive at your destination — even if attempting a quick turnaround as part of a “mileage run
  • Whether or not frequent flier loyalty program miles can be earned on those mistake fares — and yes, there are FlyerTalk members who might forgo taking advantage of the mistake fare for this reason
  • In extremely rare instances, taking advantage of a mistake fare can be dangerous — such as this airplane crash in Myanmar where three people were killed

The cost, effort and time associated with some of the above potential impediments can hinder the desire to book a mistake fare. For example, a $600.00 mistake fare in business class from Yangon might initially be a fantastic deal — but if the positioning flight costs $1,500.00 and it takes ten hours to get there, it is not so appealing after all.

There are FlyerTalk members who did not take advantage of the $51.00 airfare to Fiji solely because many hotel room rates were greater than $300.00 per night — and then there are the costs of transportation from the airport, meals, taxes, fees and other incidentals which suddenly rendered the $51.00 airfare not such a bargain anymore.

What I am attempting to say is that not all that many people get to take advantage of mistake fares in the first place — and when factoring in some of the potential impediments to a mistake fare, it really takes a lot of work to pull it off.

Of course, one maxim FlyerTalk members who take advantage of mistake fares follow is to “book now and plan later” — and if it does not work, airlines and Internet travel agencies will usually refund your money at no charge with no hassle…

…except in cases such as that of “Lauren”, who took a risk and failed — somewhat, anyway, as Christopher Elliott noted that she was “fortunate” that the experience only cost her 140,000 frequent flier loyalty program miles to purchase another seat at the last minute while losing a night at a hotel in Tokyo.

However, discussing about the best ways FlyerTalk members attempt to take advantage of mistake fares — and the impediments in doing so — does not address the supposed ethical and moral dilemma posed here:

Is taking advantage of mistake fares stealing, as according to Christopher Elliott??

What do you think?

Comments (Showing 14 of 14)

  • G_G at 2:33am February 11, 2013

    Christopher Elliott has found a really poor way to make the buzz 🙁

  • zsm1928 at 10:27am February 11, 2013

    From reading Christopher’s other posts I have concluded that he is an idiot. He feels that he is the final arbiter on all things travel. If it was up to him, airlines would only have single class service, there would not be any priority check in or priority boarding, and he would make FF programs illegal.

  • DaDaDan at 10:44am February 11, 2013

    Also, Christopher Elliott is wrong as a matter of law.

    The “unclean hands” defenses only work for lawsuits in “equity” — these are cases where the plaintiff is looking for a court order or injunction. If the plaintiff only wants money damages, it is a case at “law,” where “unclean hands” does not apply. Furthermore “equitable” remedies are only available if money damages cannot remedy the damages. In this case, money would have been sufficient to pay back the plaintiff for her losses due to the breach of contract on the part of the airline. Therefore, equityable remedies would not be sought, and the cleanliness of the plaintiff’s hands would not be at issue.

  • gooseman13 at 10:49am February 11, 2013

    Good for Chris – he found a way to stir up people’s emotions enough to drive traffic to his site. What other explanation can there be for such an illogical piece of writing? Citing the car example where in reality the dealership apologized and was sued for 2 million dollars.

    What planet is the guy on? And why do we keep talking about him???

  • DaDaDan at 10:56am February 11, 2013

    Sorry, looks like Christopher Elliott did not introduce the unclean hands doctrine. It was actually you!

  • jackal at 11:26am February 11, 2013

    Brian, the biggest problem with this article is that you’re bothering to give Chris Elliott the time of day.

    I have learned to simply ignore him. He is a troll and nothing more, albeit a well-published troll. He’s not worth your valuable time that you took to compose this article (which is a completely correct and fair assessment, by the way), nor should he be given any further attention or publicity.

    That’s my $0.02 on the issue, anyway.

  • Brian Cohen at 12:02pm February 11, 2013

    Yes, DaDaDan, I was the one who brought up the unclean hands doctrine because that is what came to my mind when I read the article by Christopher Elliott – and I thank you for your input. That is one part of “blogging” about which I really enjoy – learning from those who comment after reading The Gate. Please keep it up!

    jackal, I actually find that Christopher Elliott does have some interesting points in what he writes – although I do not always agree with him. This is not so much about giving him publicity as it is provoking thought and meaningful dialogue with you and other readers of The Gate, as there have been FlyerTalk members who posted about the ethics of taking advantage of mistake fares in the past who might agree with the position taken by Christopher Elliott.

    I will say, however, that calling FlyerTalk members “idiots” is sensationalistic and going overboard – although Christopher Elliott attributes that pejorative term to an “insider”…

  • SmisekEra1K at 1:56pm February 11, 2013

    I’m not going to comment on Chris Elliott’s hyperbolic assertion. However, I will say that in response to various recent “mistake” fares challenged by the airlines, the carriers asserted that many of the buyers of the tickets were indeed not “idiots”, but rather super-savvy consumers who would have known that the displayed fare/mileage level was an error, and thus the benefit of laws and regulations designed to protect the average consumer should not apply under those circumstances.

  • jackplum at 2:21pm February 11, 2013

    I see this is not limited to The Lounge

    “Of course, that is a policy Publix publicly posts pertaining to potentially perceivable perfunctory product pricing procedures, perhaps….”

  • jackplum at 5:50pm February 11, 2013

    In all seriousness, I agree with the premise that some of these fares may be “planted” by the airlines. They are usually discovered quickly enough and honoring the fare is not really a large imposition to a global airline and all in all, good customer service. If I had such a fare, and it was honored, I would think highly of the airline.

    I feel few people spend extraordinary time searching for these fares and the occasional stumble upon a post and taking advantage of it certainly does not rise to theft. Absent a criminal complaint by the airline, there is, IMHO, no basis for such a claim.

  • Fyd at 11:28pm February 11, 2013

    At a time when LCC regularly advertise $0 fares (taxes and fees only), a “mistake fare” is mood: any fare is possible and reasonable and you can’t realistically expect a traveler, savy or not, to distinguish between a marketing splash and a mistake fare!
    Chris Elliot has clearly missed the last 10y of anything-goes marketing!

  • srdshelly at 3:40am February 12, 2013

    Elliott often writes in a bombastic style to get attention to his site. I don’t book obvious mistake fares, because I know they are very unlikely to be honored, and I for one don’t enjoy the ensuing battle. But I don’t think it’s “stealing” to do so. Either it will be honored or it won’t. If it’s honored, that’s a case of “willing buyer, willing seller”, not stealing. If it’s not honored, it’s “no deal,” not stealing. On the other hand, I hold little admiration for those who knowingly book or buy a mistake, then when it’s not honored, go running to DOT or the courts to try to enforce their “deal”. And there are some big names in the hobby who do that, to their disgrace.

  • natalie at 8:47am February 12, 2013

    Awesome article. So many things Elliott does not take into account. So many thing he Assumes. Unfortunate he gets space her for such negative actions.

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