Do airlines need protection from unscrupulous passengers??

According to at least one published article recently, the answer to that question is a rather resounding “yes” and, naturally, “mistake fares” are called out in the piece. The opinion is voiced in the most recent edition of The Air & Space Lawyer, a publication of the American Bar Association targeted at legal professionals in the aviation world. The current edition hasn’t made their homepage yet but one of the authors is Evelyn Sahr, a partner at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC, and chairs the firm’s Aviation Practice Group. The Firm has published a copy of the piece as well so it is available from them. And it is an interesting read.

From the get-go Sahr and co-author Drew Derco are on the offensive in defending the airlines and their need for protections, claiming that the current DoT rules go too far.

[G]overnmental regulators have promulgated a series of new consumer rights regulations aimed at preventing misleading advertising, pricing, and other alleged unfair or deceptive conduct by airlines.

Notwithstanding the above, there is one issue for which, contrary to the current regulatory model, airlines deserve some protection of their own: aggressive consumers who take advantage of implausibly low fares that are clearly published in error.… Genuine pricing mistakes, although rare, do happen. And, with the existence of blogs and other forms of social media, airlines are at the mercy of unscrupulous passengers who troll these media looking to take advantage of erroneous fares, which are sometimes referred to as “mistake fares.”

Not surprisingly the RGN fares made the bulk of the story, though there are allusions to other mistakes, such as the $40 British Airways India base fare from a few years back, a fare which was not honored. Conveniently the story misses out on the fact that the India fare was actually ~$600 a/I, not all that much less than historical lows on those routes.

Sahr & Derco cite many different industries and the regulations covering them, each and every one of which permits the company advertising the goods for sale to either refuse to complete a transaction or to change the final price and hold the customer accountable for paying more even if the transaction was completed. Included are many travel-related offerings such as cruise bookings as well as a recent TicketMaster case where they were permitted to go back to customers and collect $99 rather than the $25 originally charged for a concert ticket. These two examples, as well as several “typographical errors” in newspaper ads are given as a basis for why the current DoT rules are onerous and unfair to airlines.

The piece closes with a rather strongly worded claim, similar to the opening:

Allowing the few unscrupulous consumers who troll websites to profit from unintentional pricing errors will, in the end, only serve to raise the price of air travel to the detriment of the broader class of consumers DOT seeks to protect.

On the one hand, I get the position being put forth. Airlines are potentially on the hook for mistakes far more than any other industry based on the current regulations and that is arguably unfair to them. At the same time, however, the contracts they are operating on are tremendously biased in their favor in nearly every other facet of operations. Customers are penalized for just about any “error” they might make whilst the airlines are wholly in charge. Permitting such a one-sided application of rules is just as unfair to consumers as the current version theoretically is to the industry.

I do believe there is a balance which can be reached where the airlines respect the passengers and the converse is also true. But that is going to require some give on the part of the airlines, well more than what Sahr & Derco are suggesting in this case.

Thanks to teh Otter for sharing the original source with me.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I understand they have a legitimate point, but as you say, what other industry refuses to allow me to give a ticket to a friend, return, refund, raincheck or exchange? It’s a vicious cycle…

  2. Airlines are the one industry that I don’t sympathize with. If I was to walk into a grocery store or even see something on a website such as Amazon where the published price seemed too good to be true, I might try to buy it, but I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if they refused to honor the price. Part of that has to do with the fact that most stores have fairly liberal return policies. Because these stores treat me fairly, I am sympathetic to mistakes they might make and am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Airlines, on the other hand, bring it on themselves through their revenue management practices. It’s the only industry I can think of where the price of a commodity can change dramatically from day to day, even hour to hour, with no advance notice and limited predictability. And they have limited customer’s ability to return the product or to match subsequent price drops (to 24 hours typically). In my mind, they have created the monster through their own practices and expect sympathy in return. No way, no thanks.

  3. yep, if i make a mistake of any kind, it is on me. So that is why i have no sympathy for the carriers on mistake fares and think DOT got it right in enforcing them.

    1. You get 24 hours now to back out, Carl. If you’re going to play the tit-for-tat game would it be reasonable to give the airlines the same thing?

      Back when the airlines didn’t offer the 24 hours I think your claim would have been more valid, though there were also more options for free holding of fares in those days. But does the 24-hour rule make things a bit more fair to the consumer?

      1. I had a slight fear of that when the 24 hour rule was instituted. Even on a non-mistake fare (such as a really good MR fare), what happens if the airline loads the fare, then decides they don’t really want to honor it? Should they also get 24 hours to cancel any booked ticket if they don’t like it? This would be analogous to the 24 hour rule for consumers.

      2. I don’t have any sympathy for the airlines either. That said, I think that whatever time frame the airline honors for a passenger to return the ticket for a full refund, is the amount of time the airline should have to void a legitimate erroneously priced ticket. Once that time period has passed, no matter how “egregious” even an honest mistake was, too bad for the airline.

        Now as to Tom’s point, perhaps the rule should still allow the passenger to make a claim as with the current DOT rules, even if the airline canceled within 24 hours. The DOT could look at the evidence and decide from there. I don’t know, I guess that’s not always perfect but seems like a reasonable approach.

  4. Off-topic (there seems to be no way to leave feedback on your travel tools site): Is there any way to see/change my email address in travel tools profile? I want to set up some alerts, but not sure which email address they will go to, as I signed up a while back… Thanks!

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