Rich Thomaselli | June 03, 2015 12:00 PM ET
DOT Ruling On 'Mistaken Fares' Filled With Moral Ambiguity
In the wake of a spate of "mistaken airfares" – a computer glitch or a missed decimal point that causes an airfare to be published at a substantially lower rate than normal – the Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings made a preliminary ruling last month.
The DOT, in a statement, said it would “not enforce the requirement for airlines to honor mistaken fares provided the airline demonstrates that the fare was a mistake and reimburses the out-of-pocket expenses of consumers who purchased the mistaken fare.”
The preliminary ruling will remain that way until the DOT issues a final ruling regarding mistaken fares.
But this is less about getting lucky and finding one of those mistaken fares as it is about moral ambiguity – for the traveler and the airline.
Look at it this way. Let’s say you opened your paycheck and it was $100 less than it usually is, even though you worked the exact same hours as the pay period before that, and the pay period before that, and every pay period, really.
You would certainly point out the mistake, right?
And you would want it corrected immediately, right?
After all, if you’re among the 99 percent you likely live on a budget that is pegged toward receiving a certain, set amount of income.
Now ask yourself this. If it was the other way around, if your company had paid you $100 too much and it was clearly a mistake and not some sort of bonus or dividend, would you be so quick to point it out and give it back?
Do you give back the extra $10 the cashier gave you at the grocery store while counting out your change?
When you find that $100 bill on the ground do you make a concerted effort to wait and see if some frantic person is looking for it? Or do you just pocket it?
Life is filled with ethical dilemmas.
Ostensibly, the old DOT rule regarding these fares was mostly to prevent the airline from raising the price of a ticket once the fare had been locked in.
On one hand, I can certainly understand the flier, frustrated by high airfares that never diminished when oil prices decreased, frustrated by a bevy of ever-growing fees. A mistaken fare pops up and the flier feels like he has been thrown a bone, for once. A little karma in the face of the big giant aviation industry.
On the other hand, I can see the point of the airlines. Like the average citizen matching his or her budget to the stability and consistency of the paycheck, so too do airlines plot out revenues based on number of tickets sold, average airfare, and so forth. Selling a cabin full of first-class seats for $11 when they are normally $511 doesn’t make good business sense.
Or does it?
I have advocated in this space before the idea of carriers tossing some goodwill toward passengers every now and then. Given the record profits the airlines made last year it’s hard to believe they couldn’t share the wealth – or take the hit, if you will – on a few dozen mistaken fares. After all these things are usually caught pretty quickly, within an hour or two in most cases.
Or the airlines could even make a conciliatory gesture toward the passenger. Instead of just voiding the mistaken fare altogether and sending a corporate-sounding version of the Dear John letter, how about meeting halfway? How about the airline reaching out to the customer and saying "Look, this was a computer glitch, a mistake. We don’t sell business class seats from New York to London for $32 bucks each way. But, you caught us and you nabbed it so instead of us voiding the whole thing, how about you pay $32 one way and full price on the return?”
It’s a middle ground. It’s a start. And it doesn’t leave either side with a bad taste in its mouth of moral ambiguity.
More United States
More by Rich Thomaselli
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Airlines & Airports
Destination & Tourism
Airlines & Airports
Hotel & Resort
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship