When Airfares Are Too Good To Be True

"If that isn't stealing," she said, "then I don't know what is."
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Who could have predicted the furious reaction to the recent story about a woman who booked a cheap airline ticket from Myanmar to Canada and my characterization of her as an airfare thief?

Not me. But I'm circling back to her case, and the broader issue of fare errors, because many commenters asked me to.

This wasn't the first time I've written about the ethics of taking advantage of a price mistake. I covered the issue in 2010, when a British Airways fare error affected hundreds of travelers. I also refused to mediate a Korean Air fare mistake once I learned that many passengers had knowingly -- some would say, fraudulently -- booked the erroneously-priced tickets.

Although a bulk of the indignant comments came directly from the blogs and online discussion groups where fare mistakes are openly promoted and celebrated, some did not. A few readers seemed genuinely perplexed that I would equate buying a cheap ticket with theft. Even a former editor asked me via Twitter, "How can this be stealing?"

Technically it isn't.

There's no legal term that adequately describes what a reader named Lauren did when she purchased a business-class, transpacific airfare for $586 -- a price she knew was thousands of dollars less than it should have been. Nor is there a fitting term for what Expedia's German site did when it suddenly canceled her ticket.

At best, it's an unconscionable contract, or an agreement that's grossly unfair or unjust. But some companies think of that kind of activity as stealing, such as the Virginia Chevy dealership that inadvertently sold an SUV to a customer for $5,600 below the actual price. The business called the cops on the driver and had him arrested, even though it appears he wasn't immediately aware he'd scored such a great deal.

In other words, the consumer had no motive to defraud the dealership by exploiting its pricing mistake. And motives matter. In the end, the dealership has apologized to the customer.

I'll have more on Lauren's motives in a second.

The case of the stolen Zodiac

When I mentioned this case to my better half, her first reaction was: "It's the Zodiac all over again!"

She'd worked for a dive shop down in the Florida Keys many years ago, and one of her colleagues had mispriced a Zodiac inflatable boat, sticking a $599 pricetag on it instead of $5,995. Oops.

An eagle-eyed customer visited the store one day, bought the boat, and by the time police caught up with him, he'd already sold the vessel. The employee lost her job.

"Do you think the customer knew about the wrong price?" I asked her.

"Without a doubt."

"What did you think?"

"If that isn't stealing," she said, "then I don't know what is."

Now strictly speaking, stealing is taking someone's property -- and the business honored the price on the Zodiac, even though it was wrong. But there is probably no better word to describe what happened to the dive shop, or to Lauren's airline. It's like stealing.

Lauren disagrees.

"I do not believe I stole from the airlines," she said after my first story posted."I purchased a confirmed ticket in business class at the published fare in effect at the time of booking."

"Worse than stealing"

Some readers took a personal interest in Lauren's case, and one airline insider agreed with the majority of commenters. No, this wasn't stealing, the reader concluded. "It was worse than stealing," said the fare sleuth, who asked to remain anonymous.

The insider determined the likely identity of Lauren, which wasn't too difficult, and reviewed her posts, and others who had purchased the Myanmar fare online. The reader turned even up more evidence that Lauren knew she was booking a mistake fare. Not only had it been prominently labeled as an error in various forums, but once you reviewed the pricing, no reasonable passenger could have concluded it was anything but a mistake.

The probable fare actually cost just $13.

"Yes, $13," said my fare sleuth. "That's before the fuel surcharge and tax."

Let me repeat that: Before taxes, these fare opportunists were probably paying $13 for their tickets, according to my insider.

The real price? $9,470.

Lauren told me she knew she was booking a mistake fare, a fact I had made clear in the original story, and a fact many readers chose to disregard. But she felt justified in doing so. After all the things the airlines had done to her, they had it coming. As I mentioned in the previous post, I understand that sentiment and I sympathize with it.

But that's not the whole story.

By taking advantage of the mistake, the fare thieves were stealing in another way, too. The first flight, from Rangoon to Tokyo was new service operated by All Nippon Air on a Boeing 737 with an all-business class configuration. That's just 38 seats on a flight that operated only three times a week.

"ANA's intention was to fly Japanese executives back and forth between Tokyo and Rangoon," the insider says. "These executives' mission is to invest and create factories over in Myanmar so people there can have badly-needed jobs. Because there are only a few seats and mostly in business class, the fare to Rangoon, or vice versa, is quite expensive."

According to their online posts, people taking advantage of the fare error went out of their way to protect themselves from a possible cancellation. This included booking a stopover in the United States to take advantage of American consumer-protection laws and handling the sale through Expedia's German site, which for some reason displayed the mistake fare long after the U.S. sites had removed it.

"So if you ask me what else was stolen by the thieves, it is that they interfered with the business mission that Myanmar badly needs," the insider told me. "Instead of the space going to real executives who could create jobs, the space went to FlyerTalk idiots. That is beyond stealing for me."

So, to recap: these fare geniuses knew exactly what they were doing. And when they got caught, they reflexively turned to their playbook, trying to drum up negative publicity against ANA and Expedia.

I understand their rage

I know the anger many readers feel against airlines. The aviation industry created a sophisticated pricing scheme designed to squeeze the most money out of each passenger, and when it loses control of the system, we shouldn't let it off the hook, they insist.

In fact, given the horrible things airlines have done in the name of turning a profit, shouldn't it be our obligation as informed consumers to take advantage of every mistake an airline makes?

But that line of reasoning makes my moral compass spin out of control, and so should yours. It's wrong to level the playing field with business that engages in practices you believe to be unethical by becoming unethical.

And that brings me to the comments, which I found a little disappointing. Some readers obsessed over the dictionary definition of "stealing" while ignoring the shady circumstances of Lauren's reservation. They applied false analogies ("if the tables were turned, we'd have to pay up") and misinterpreted federal and state laws in a silly attempt to prove that it's morally right to knowingly take advantage of a pricing mistake.

A fair amount of feedback was nothing more than amusing ad-hominem attacks. I wasn't surprised by their lack of substantive criticism or impressed by the insults. I've been called much worse, my friends.

I suspect I know what accounted for the volume of venomous personal attacks. It's probably because the story struck a raw nerve. Some of you, dear readers, have taken advantage of an obvious pricing error, and you were looking to this consumer advocate for absolution.

I'm sorry I can't offer you any.

By the way, after you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter. Here's the signup form.