Is Suing Over a Mistake Fare Taking Matters Too Far?

Wandering Aramean has filed suit in small claims court against British Airways for their refusal to honor a mistake fare to India.

The tickets were $40 plus taxes and fees for full fare coach travel from the US to India. With fuel surcharges (assuming you didn’t find a strategy to get a booking engine to drop those) the tickets priced at over $500.

BA cancelled the tickets pretty quickly, they didn’t wait weeks and decide not to honor. So I don’t have a real beef with them in the way they handled the matter.

To a non-expert, though (who didn’t realize the base fare or the fare basis) $500 tickets don’t seem like obvious mistakes. And tickets of this price are usually non-refundable, consumers don’t get an out by saying they made a mistake several days later.

So of all fares not to honor this seems like a strange one, considering British Airways honored $20+tax premium economy tickets a few years back.

But as I say, I don’t have a beef, certainly not to the level where I’d file suit — even if small claims court is costing Wandering Aramean plus some time to file papers and show up for the hearing.

Now, there are times where it could be warranted. If an airline waited months to cancel a reservation, or they made unilateral changes to a booking, it seems to me a customer would have a serious beef. And at some price one should be ale to rely on a travel provider to honor what they offer. I would have thought the actual price paid — as a result of high fuel surcharges — would have led British Airways to honor in this case.

In this case though because the tickets were refundable a customer doesn’t have a reciprocity argument, that British Airways wouldn’t have let them cancel after three days. Because in fact BA would have.

So ultimately I would have liked BA to honor these, but I don’t think it is egregious as to warrant a suit.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. He’s in Manhattan. Not sure about NY, but in California, the corporation can procedurally get small claims cases moved to a higher court where it would be much more challenging non-lawyers to represent themselves.

  2. Gary:

    Thanks for the coverage, I think. 😉

    I’ve actually gone back and forth a lot on whether to file or not. I recall posting several times on FT that it probably isn’t worth it. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose and in the long run we’re probably going to come out ahead anyways. So, then, why file?

    A few reasons.

    The first is that the BA folks I’ve talked to about this – and I’ve talked to several – have been outright rude about the situation. They’ve made up lies and laws (did you know that there are federal agencies that specify what fares are permitted to be charged??) and treated me like dirt, not like a customer. They baited me to involve their legal department – explicitly, no less – so I’m taking them up on their offer.

    The second reason is that to the best of my knowledge my tickets actually were not refundable. They were restricted according to every email I got. That might not matter too much, but it was enough for me. I’ve made mistakes in bookings (AM v. PM was my latest one) and paid the price. Why can’t the airlines do the same?

    The final reason – and one that it not of great legal status – is that I think it will be fun. I want to hear their lawyers try to explain to a judge how fuel surcharges aren’t actually just income to the airlines and really equivalent to a fare. I want to hear them explain how a ticket priced $200 less than a competitor is an “obvious error” rather than just a sale in a competitive market.

    Oh, and I do really want to go to India. I booked this as a vacation for me and my wife and I intended to use it as booked. No FDs, no crazy routings with OALs, no shenanigans. Just trying to take advantage of a sale fare for some fun in Karala. Now it seems I get to have some fun in NYC first.

  3. From a legal perspective, I think BA has a strong argument that a contract was never formed. The purchaser of the tickets could not have reasonably believed he was buying valid non-mistakenly-priced tickets. As such, no “meeting of the minds” occurred.

  4. @Elliott, just to push back a bit, the purchaser saw themselves buying ~ $500 tickets which was lower than the competition but hardly free.

  5. I think Wandering Armenian has a more basic problem: BA, as far as I know, does not have a place of business in Manhattan )New York County) and thus are not within the jurisdiction of the Manhattan Small Claims Court.

  6. Gary, I’m not sure I understand the significance of the timing. What difference does it make if BA cancels 1 day later, 2 weeks later, or 2 months later? A ticket was issued, money was collected, and one side reneged on the deal.

    Certainly the airline would balk at customers changing/canceling reservations after 24 hours, right (for non-refundable tickets)?

  7. @Wandering Aramean
    I hope you win, I keep my fingers crossed, best of luck to you.
    I agree with everything you said… especially that when we make a mistake, corporations make us pay for it… when they make one, they try to get out of it. It’s juts like insurance… they love you as long as you pay premiums, but when you file a claim… you’re their worst enemy.
    Please keep us posted!
    ;-)))

  8. As posted above, at least some of these tickets were nonrefundable. And the cancellation was not that speedy – it took a few days. This is better than waiting for months or until one gets to the airport to have your ticket cancelled (something Air Canada did to one of my friends) but it is certainly from my perspective not nearly as prompt as it should have been if BA did not want to honor these fares.

    And by all accounts I’ve read BA Customer service has not been very good with these tickets.

    So I don’t think sueing is necessarily over the top. After all, it is costly in time and money to the plaintiff with the prospect that even if their lawsuit is successful the effective cost to them may be more than the value of their settlement. Those who sue over this are probably doing so (from their viewpoint) out of principal.

    Personally, unless I suffered real damage I don ‘t think I would go to the trouble of disputing this with BA (like I suspect 99.9% of other customers – which is why BA thinks they can get away with this).

  9. I’m all for Wandering Armaen for standing up for consumer rights. I’ve seen big corporations like Bank of America try to push me and others around, with an arrogant callous attitude. Someone needs to put the bully-BA in his place.

  10. @Mordy: They have business in NYC, specifically their North American operations are based in Queens. By NY State Law I am permitted to file my claim in either their borough or mine. I chose mine as the Manhattan courts are more convenient for me.

    The Clerk of the Court would have never let me file had it not been the correct jurisdiction.

    @Elliott: The fare was not that unreasonable. It was certainly a sale but at $550 for the tickets – the amount my CC was charged for each one – the claim that they were “clearly a mistake” is suspect. There are tickets available for sale today for only $200 more than that. Seems much more like a sale than an obvious error to me.

  11. @Wandering Aranmean

    I have bought RT tickets from SFO to FRA for $440 (all in) , and — at a different date (high season) paid $1200 for the same class of service on the same airline on the same flight with roughly the same advance notice. So $500 to India from the east coast doesn’t sound all that “mistaken” to me.

    That said, your argument that it didn’t look to you like a fare mistake would be weakened if BA could show evidence from your blog or FT that you thought otherwise at the time of purchase (whether it matters or not is another question).

    As for having BA’s lawyers explain something to the court — are lawyers permitted to represent companies in small claims court in NYC? (they aren’t in CA, as far as I know).

  12. Gary,
    This statement does not make much sense to me: “In this case though because the tickets were refundable a customer doesn’t have a reciprocity argument, that British Airways wouldn’t have let them cancel after three days. Because in fact BA would have.”
    It takes the supposition that if I have a refundable ticket, then I can cancel it for refund. And adds a reciprocal to it that if I have a refundable ticket, then BA can also cancel it, leaving me high and dry when I show up at the airport.
    What is to stop BA from giving my seat to someone offering more money at a later date?

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