USA Today carries a piece that suggests that booking mistake fares used to be considered morally wrong, but that airlines stick it to us so badly that people no longer have an ethical problem with it.
So, are customers who book mistake fares stealing? When I began investigating mistake fares a decade ago, there was a strong consensus among most passengers. It was wrong, no question about it. Only a small, vocal group of loyalty-program bloggers disagreed, but their views were far outside the mainstream.
Not anymore. A short decade of cuts and consolidations have made even the occasional traveler aware of the draconian airline policies, including onerous change fees, ticket restrictions and other “ancillary” charges meant to line the pockets of airline shareholders. Airlines have developed technology to extract every last penny from passengers. And, predictably, the tide of public opinion turned.
Now it’s a Christopher Elliott piece, and (though no doubt he’d deny it) ‘a decade ago’ there weren’t many ‘loyalty program bloggers’ and certainly not many writing about mistake fares. So by process of elimination he must be referring to me.
But Elliott is almost certainly 100% wrong here.
First, because consumer satisfaction with airlines is no lower today than it was 20 years ago. (The idea that airlines used to be popular, especially when the standard is ‘a decade ago’ does seem implausible even without reference to actual data.)
And second because the public used to have sympathy for consumers that booked mistake fares. They no longer do. When airlines would cancel mistake fares, bad publicity ensued.
Indeed, it used to be considered a moral issue, and so United put themselves on the side of the consumer.
UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co., JetBlue Airways Corp. and Singapore Airlines all say their policy is to not cancel tickets even when a mistake is discovered, no matter how large the error.
“That is the right thing to do,” says United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. In 2007, United honored a business-class fare from Los Angeles or San Francisco to destinations in New Zealand that was missing one zero: it was sold as $1,062 plus taxes and fees instead of $10,620 plus taxes and fees.
DOT rules that used to require airlines to honor mistake fares changed this.
The government’s requiring airlines to honor mistake fares led to public sympathy for airlines when they were forced to honor their mistakes. It seemed like consumers were getting something they weren’t entitled to.
It used to be that consumers had the cry that airlines forced consumers to pay for their mistakes, and that airlines should too.
But DOT rules requiring airlines to give consumers a cooling off period where they could either hold a fare before purchase or cancel a fare within 24 hours of purchase meant that the ‘reciprocity’ argument no longer meant airlines ought to honor their mistakes. (Although they should certainly be required to act on a mistake in real time, within 24 hours or so.)
And that it was no longer a voluntary choice for airlines to honor a fare meant they no longer got credit for doing so, and it no longer made sense to appeal to their desire to avoid bad publicity over dashing the dreams of once-in-a-lifetime travelers.
And so it’s precisely when airlines began to get the technology tools (from ATPCO in 2009) which make international airfare mistakes less common that’s also when airlines began to get sympathy over being forced to honor those mistakes.
Put another way, the claim that people used to think airlines shouldn’t have to honor mistake fares – as Elliott suggests – and that now all of a sudden people don’t like the airlines and so think they should have to honor fares, gets it exactly backwards.