Lufthansa wins big against "Error Fares"

Don’t use the words “Error Fare” when talking about great bargains. That’s the message handed down this week by a German court. Following a handful of “really nice discounts” offered by Lufthansa over the past few months the carrier sued a German website Urlaubspiraten for publishing the “Error Fare” to members via a WhatsApp group, Facebook posts and its website. And the airline won.

The ruling is in German but the gist of it is that such promotion of fares creates an unfair competitive environment for the airlines and dramatically increases the burden to accommodate such mistakes. And, yes, the airline acknowledges that a human not properly completing a spreadsheet is the cause of the abnormally low fares.

By the targeted information on priceworthy offers of the plaintiff these error fares are discovered much faster than if they were visible only on the website of the plaintiff and Accordingly, according to the plaintiff’s submission, this entails competitive disadvantages with regard to the flights concerned (see section A. 2.) and is thus likely to adversely affect the competition of the plaintiff.

Lufthansa claims that it responded very quickly to the mistake, re-filing the fare within 5 hours.

The plaintiff alleges that the accidental failure to complete an Excel spreadsheet caused the plaintiff to commit a transfer error that resulted in a business class return flight ticket to California for EUR 687 per person instead of the regular price from 3846, – EUR per person was bookable (Annex AS 11).

It further claims that dealing with customers in the event of cancellation of Error Fare bookings also results in an impairment of public perception. The elimination of the controversial offer in dispute within 5 hours was done very quickly. A faster processing is hardly possible in view of the internal processes – especially if the error fare is published on weekends or at night.

The carrier also acknowledges that error fares are very, very difficult and expensive to rescind:

The time window until the flight was always relatively short. As far as foreign customers had booked the flight as an error fare, there were additional problems with the enforcement and, if necessary, very high attorney’s fees. In 2012, in the booking portal of the plaintiff herself a first-class flight to South Africa for several days for 800.00 € and later even for only 08.00 € bookable. Although the former Error Fare was booked only 179 times, The plaintiff was employed for two years for the resulting legal disputes. Legal fees were also charged for domestic prosecution and, in the case of a British customer, legal fees totaling approximately £ 15,000.

The plaintiff not only incurs increased legal costs due to the widespread dissemination of an error fares, but also made it comprehensible, and made it credible that the subsequent reversal threatens her to damage the image of the public. In addition, it has conclusively argued that a rewinding timely to the flight offer, then sell this at a reasonable price, made extremely difficult because of the passage of time. If the plaintiff remains bound by the contract with the user, it must carry it for a fraction of the usual price, thereby causing damage at least in the difference between the market price and the price advertised as being incorrectly advertised. …

Already with a much smaller number of bookings of an error fares, the plaintiff in the past with legal prosecution and reversal competitive disadvantages (such as two years back settlement time and attorney fees) have arisen. The cancellation of the 600 bookings resulting from the exploitation of the Error Fare in dispute is therefore associated with legal uncertainty and considerable additional expense for the plaintiff, which she, the largest German airline, can not tolerate.

It must be taken into account that this is not a case of individual bookings of an Error Fare, but the defendant as the market leader in the area “Reiseschnäppchenportal” reached millions of users and informed about the presence of error fares, so that it – as in the present case – within less hours comes to a variety of bookings. The market power of the defendant therefore adds additional weight to the assessment of (parasitic) exploitation.

Ultimately the German court agreed, siding with the airline:

The defendant acts unfairly, because she consciously exploits a recognizable mistake of the plaintiff and thus creates a significant competitive disadvantage for the plaintiff.

The ruling imposes a potential penalty of 6 months in prison or a 250,000 euro fine for future violations; this incident only costs the company attorney fees.

But the ruling also appears to be spectacularly narrow. It prohibits the promotion of “fares with wrong prices (‘Error Fares’)” named as such. It is not clear that it prohibits the dissemination of “Rare Fares” or “Really Good Bargains” or other terms. It is also unclear that this extends to other websites or airlines. Still, with the potential of a 250k euro fine or jail time looming it would be rather aggressive to stay active in that segment of the market.

And, at least in one instance, it turns out publishing an “Error Fare” proved to be a very, very bad choice.

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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 human error in completing a spreadsheet as I’ve done that myself but I’m curious as to whether anyone else ever double checks the work done before inputting the spreadsheet to the system. I’d imagine seeing such an abnormally low fare for Business Class would have been identified if another person (or a group of people) or even a computer program double checked the spreadsheet.

    1. In addition to proofreading – something I should get better at, to be sure – there are also automated systems that can help detect these errors more quickly when they occur. Something like, “is this fare more than nn% different from the prior filing would likely catch the vast majority of the errors with few false positives. Apparently blaming customers is easier, though.

      1. First of all, Urlaubspiraten is not a customer, it is a company that also sells travel packages (thus being a competitor to Lufthansa, which made this verdict possible under the Unfair Business Practices act) and in 2016 had an annual revenue of 258 Mio Euro (Source: German Wikipedia). Second, regarding your statement that the verdict was being spectacularly narrow, the verdict cites that the website may not advertise wrong pricings (“Error Fares”) “in the way described in Appendix AS 1”. I haven’t found this appendix in the published verdict, but I would assume that if they needed an whole Appendix for the description, it is not simply limited to the wording “Error Fare”….

  2. I booked a error fare once from Wellington to Oakland CA. My mistake wasn’t booking it with Delta it was Business class return for $1300 NZ. A huge bargain but I booked it with Virgin and they wouldn’t honor the fare. But I have heard that Delta did. I was pretty unhappy I was so looking forward to flying business this year.

  3. Such an outrageous decision – the Golden Rule in all its glory.

    Airlines could easily prevent these mistakes – but their desire to constantly change fares to maximize revenues leads them vulnerable to mistakes – which should be the cost of doing business in such a shoddy manner.

    And as you point out, the playing field is hugely skewed in the airline’s favor when customers need to make changes (I’m sure most frequent fliers have booked wrong dates/got time zones mixed up, etc etc, and have been gouged with huge change or cancellation fees)

  4. All I want to know is this – how is an average consumer supposed to know what Is a deal, and what is not.

    First class fare for FRA-LAX – $20. Ok, error Fare. 200? Probably. 1000? 2000? 35,000?
    Now apply that to business and economy fares. Norwegian and WOW can offer $100 flights. Maybe LH wants to match that for a time – how am I supposed to know that? Does an operating carrier have to specifically market that?

    There needs to be a way for the consumer to know what they are buying is legitimate and that the airline can’t decide to revoke a bunch of tickets because they want to sell their seats for more.

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