Airlines rely a lot on technology and IT systems – particularly with regards to fares and ticket bookings. This along with human mistakes can sometimes lead to error fares. These fares can look similar to promotional fares that most airlines offer. The only difference would be that error fares are ‘too good to be true’.
Error fares can be a tricky affair for the airline. In short, an airline has three options
- Accept the error and honor the bookings
- Cancel the reservations and offer the aggrieved passengers other incentives (e.g. a free flight, miles, upgrade passes etc.)
- Cancel the reservation without incentives
Interestingly, all the three scenarios played out in the first two months of 2019.
Error Fares in 2019
The year literally began with a bang for Cathay Pacific.
Due to an error, first class tickets between Vietnam and New York were being sold at a princely $675! The regular price for this ticket was $16,000. This happened before I had started writing on this blog. However, several Boarding Area contributors had blogged about it.
Cathay Pacific decided to honor the bookings.
Happy 2019 all, and to those who bought our good – VERY good surprise ‘special’ on New Year’s Day, yes – we made a mistake but we look forward to welcoming you on board with your ticket issued. Hope this will make your 2019 ‘special’ too!
— Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific) January 2, 2019
A few days later, it was the turn of Malaysia Airlines. The airline offered first class round-trip fares from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai at an insane price of $1,300. Insane because this route was operated by Emirates (Malaysia Airline was a code-share partner) and the fares are usually $8,000+.
Unlike Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airline decided not to honor the bookings. To make matters worse, the airline cancelled the bookings without intimating the passengers.
I had also made reservations using this error fare. On contacting the customer care, Malaysia Airlines offered me a free economy ticket with certain terms and conditions. I did not pursue the matter again.
The above two examples were widely covered in the blogosphere. However, there was one more which went largely unnoticed.
Oman Air Error Fare Delhi <-> Tehran
In January 2019, Oman Air website (and several OTAs) offered Delhi-Tehran-Delhi at an attractive price of INR 6,700 ($100). The usual price of this itinerary was INR 39,000 ($580). The discounted (or error as mentioned later) fares were offered during the period January 24-26, 2019.
In fact, some OTAs had marketed this promotion as Republic Day Sale, which is held on January 26 every year. This further convinced the travelers that the fares were legit.
As per some news sources, several hundred passengers made travel bookings on this fare. A few days later, Oman Air notified the passengers about the error and gave them two options. First, the bookings can be cancelled for a full refund (no other incentives). Second, the passenger could pay additional INR 20,000 ($300) and continue the booking.
Usually, the story ends here. However, some affected passengers hired an attorney took this issue to court.
Courts in India can take forever to give their judgments. In fact, it is challenging to get the matter heard in a reasonable time. However, in this case, the court called Oman Air representative for an urgent hearing. Oman Air contended that it has already canceled all the tickets issued under the discounted offer as the same were offered due to human error.
After detailed arguments, the Court directed Oman Air to reissue the tickets to the 16 travelers who had approached the Court and as per the original schedule. Further, the Court directed Oman Air to reissue and reschedule the tickets of five travelers who were supposed to fly the same day.
Three different airlines and error fares. Three different outcomes. The only thing common in these incidents is that the passengers won – either the reservations were honored or they were provided compensation.
Does this mean you should go to a court if your ‘error fare’ bookings aren’t honored? I do not think so. The outcome would depend on several circumstances. For instance, US Department of Transportation does not require airlines to honor error fares.
Then there is a matter of costs involved – legal fee, repeated court hearing etc.