Seven Reasons Why Mistake Fares May NOT Be Dying: Part Two of Two

KLM Boeing 747-400 Economy Class Brian Cohen

Although the possibility of procuring a mistake fare may indeed be increasing in difficulty due to improved technology and potentially more restrictive regulations, here is part two of this article as to seven reasons why mistake fares may not be dying:

4. Mistake Fares Versus Airfares Procured by Questionable Means

This latest shift in policy by the Department of Transportation is most likely derived from this footnote included in the aforementioned official statement:

In February 2015, United Airlines experienced a mistaken fare situation where, in order to purchase a ticket, individuals had to go to United’s Denmark website which had fares listed in Danish Krone throughout the purchasing process. Only people who identified “Denmark” as their location/country when entering billing information at the completion of the purchase process were able to complete their purchase at the mistaken fare levels. The Enforcement Office decided not to take action against United for not honoring the fare offers because the fare offer was not marketed to consumers in the United States. The Enforcement Office also noted its concern that to obtain the fare, some purchasers had to manipulate the search process on the website in order to force the conversion error to Danish Krone by misrepresenting their billing address country as Denmark when, in fact, Denmark was not their billing address country.

That was not taking advantage of a mistake fare; rather, that was a way for customers to blatantly and purposely circumvent paying the appropriate airfare by questionable means. Perhaps that was the pivotal situation as at least minimally part of the reason why the Department of Transportation was prompted to change its policy and issue its latest official statement.

5. Dynamic Pricing: Can it Bite the Airlines as Much as Benefit Them?

Airlines long been engaged in dynamic pricing to the point where jokes regarding their absurdity have become classics — such as the one which is approximately 20 years old and pertains to what if airlines sold paint, as one of many examples…

…and not only have airlines not abated on keeping the consumer puzzled as to what airfare is valid and when; but instead, the contrary seems to be happening: there are signs that that pricing model has actually been extended to pervade award travel as well. For example, Delta Air Lines no longer has these award charts available to members of its SkyMiles frequent flier loyalty program. As with airfares, customers are left to “roll the dice” and take a chance as to how many SkyMiles need to be redeemed for a certain award — again with myriad factors to determine the final price.

With dynamic pricing comes uncertainty by the consumer; and with that uncertainty comes the questioning of the validity of an airfare. Is it really fair for a consumer to be burdened with proving that an airfare is indeed a sale upon which they unknowingly stumbled; or that the airfare is an actual mistake? Arguably not — because…

6. Mistake Fares are the Responsibility of the Airline — Period

…if an airline cannot ensure that the quality of information it distributes is as accurate as possible, why should the consumer bear the inconvenience or responsibility of the mistake?

In every industry, there is a subset of customers who take advantage of the mistakes of companies — or solely purchase “loss leader” items or services without purchasing other items or services which the company intended for you to purchase in order to profit. Supermarkets are a good example: items will be advertised and displayed at them for a good deal — let us say half the regular price, for example. Management of the supermarket might be willing to lose money on a container of ice cream or boxes of pasta if it means getting you into the store to purchase other items which may not be on sale: “I am here already and I need tuna — I guess I will buy several cans.”

That would be ideal; but there are customers who purchase only the “loss leader” products — and will also take full advantage of mistake pricing. There are supermarket chains whose policy allows the customer to keep the item free of charge if the price of the item is incorrect. Should the Federal Trade Commission of the United States get involved to protect supermarkets from those nefarious customers who will take unfair advantage of them with any opportunity to do so? Is it up to the consumer to prove to management of the supermarket that the price of an item is part of a legitimate sale versus a mistake?

Rather than place the burden of proof on a consumer to know the difference between a mistake fare and a legitimate sale fare — and no, there is no clear bright line to determine that distinction — perhaps the burden should be on the airlines to ensure that the pricing information which they distribute is consistently accurate in order to prevent mistake fares from happening in the first place?

7. Public Image, Relations — and Trust

This may not be as much of a factor as during the years when there were more airlines competing for the same customers; but an airline can receive great press — in other words, valuable free advertising — such as the Christmas Day airfare mistake which Etihad Airways honored. It seemed like a win-win situation where customers took advantage of amazing airfares; and the news about the good will of members of the management team at Etihad Airways was all over the media.

Conversely, an airline can receive negative publicity when it does not honor an airfare — and it is debatable as to whether or not an airline would be as adversely affected these days due to the decreased competition, strengthening economy, and other factors which are outlined in this article.

If a customer purchases an airfare — only to be rescinded by the airline which issued it — how can that customer trust that he or she is getting a good deal in the future?


In order for the instances of mistake fares not to be honored to increase, the airlines must still prove to the Department of Transportation that airfares are indeed mistakes — not an easy task when unpredictable dynamic pricing is considered; when fuel prices and other costs have decreased and are passed on to the consumer; and when low-cost carriers and ultra-low-cost carriers influence the markets of legacy airlines.

This can be good news for you as a consumer. Look for more low airfares in the near future, but be patient and flexible when searching for those low airfares. Do not be concerned as to whether or not that airfare you find is a mistake or is legitimate — book it at that moment and worry about it after your reservation is confirmed, as airlines based in the United States usually have a period of 24 hours without penalty where you can decide whether or not you still want the itinerary you booked.

Still, the future will be interesting as to how airlines, customers, and the Department of Transportation handle situations concerning possible mistake fares…

…but the only true death of mistake fares will be when the systems of issuing airfares by airlines has been improved to the point of perfection and an accuracy rate of 100 percent; and remember: the burden of proof is not on you — nor it is not your responsibility — to research and determine whether or not a low airfare which is offered is actually a mistake.

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.


  1. dan casher says

    Mistakes in airfare are a gift. My favourite was a first class PanAm Caracas to NewYork booked in the US on a Venezuelan credtitcard in Bolos at 40:1 reversed and at a net cost of less than US $ 15. Runner-up is BOAC billing in BRC which were famous for the 10,000 note (virtually wallpaper) also reversed in £ to BRC and further reveresed in BRC to VEB. Final cost was virtually nil. Alas, computer programs have fixed these gifts in the 80s.

    • Brian Cohen says

      …and people complain about not being able to catch mistake fares these days, dan casher.

      You managed to do it before the Internet became widespread — and on flights operated by Pan Am and BOAC, no less!

      Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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