Should airlines honor low fares that are obvious mistakes?

Royce Smith planned to visit Sydney during spring break to attend an arts festival and work on a book, when he found an unbelievably good fare on American Airlines’ Web site: A round-trip ticket from Wichita to Sydney for just $1,198.

In first class.

“I jumped on the deal,” said Smith, an assistant art professor at Wichita State University. “I entered credit card details and double-checked American’s booking code to ensure that first class was indeed what I was purchasing. Everything indicated a confirmed seat in first class.”

He shouldn’t have believed it.

Four days later, an American Airlines representative phoned Smith with some bad news: The fare was a mistake. He could either pay the difference between the real first-class fare and what he’d paid — $11,000 — or get bumped down to economy class at no extra charge. The airline also offered a $200 transportation voucher for his trouble.

“Can an airline step out of such an error so freely when it holds its passengers to such rigid rules regarding cancellations, overweight baggage, and late arrival to the airport?” he asked.

The airline believes it can.

“We fully believe customers should have recognized the fare that was very briefly offered as being an obvious error that is simply too good to be true versus the normal price of approximately $20,000 round trip for a first-class fare from the U.S. to Australia,” said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American. “Your customer admits that he thought it was an excellent, even fantastic price, even for first class, so that should have drawn some suspicion on his part. Apparently it did not.”

But this is not a story about whether a travel company should honor an erroneous price. I’ve already written that article, and I have the burn marks to prove it. Instead, I wondered whether there was anything a passenger like Smith might have done to spot this fare error before he began to entertain thoughts of crossing the Pacific in style.

I looked up the fare from Wichita to Sydney, and Royce Smith’s fare was low, even by economy-class standards. American believes that the too-good-to-be-true litmus test must be applied to all fares, which is something I’ve heard from other companies caught in a price-error quandary.

That would make sense — if travel prices made sense. But they don’t. When carriers such as Spirit Airlines sell tickets for $1, a reasonable traveler may conclude that a $1,198 fare to Australia is not so unreasonable.

Is there a better way to know? Maybe. Mark Mannell, who follows pricing errors in the car rental industry as the chief executive of CarRentalSavers.com, says that he turns to the Internet to determine whether a deal is legit. “The best source for me are the travel and discount forums,” he said.

Among them are sites such as Slick Deals and Fat Wallet, where bargains are often vetted by users or editors. He also frequents such travel-specific sites as TripAdvisor and Flyertalk, a popular discussion board for business travelers.

But these Web sites are a mixed blessing, at least in my experience.

Although they can identify honest-to-goodness sales, they’re sometimes also breeding grounds for malcontents. I’ve run across travelers who feel that a company should honor any fare error, no matter how outrageous, and who don’t think twice about booking blocks of rooms or several tickets at a wrong price.

Not only do I find that ethically problematic, but it also makes matters more difficult for passengers like Smith, who only buy one ticket. A travel company with a bona fide fare slip-up is far less likely to make good on its mistake when it believes that customers are trying to take advantage of it.

Put differently, don’t believe everything you read on the forums. And don’t be too quick to join other participants in an e-mail campaign to persuade a company to honor an erroneous fare or rate. You may not be in the best company.

In the end, the one tool that you can truly rely on is your own common sense. If your gut tells you that there’s something wrong with a price, chances are there is. Sadly, common sense is in short supply on some online forums, where travelers devour every deal faster than a cloud of hungry locusts descending on a hapless farmer’s crops.

One more thing: When pricing errors happen, there are no winners.

Smith, for his part, is rethinking his loyalty to American Airlines.

“As a professor, I traveled over 200,000 miles with American last year, took students on three international trips on American, and had planned to use American for future travel needs,” he told me. “If they are making these decisions from a purely economic point of view, it would seem that they are threatening a much larger pool of current and future income than by simply admitting their mistake and letting me fly in the cabin I booked.”

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