Is it ever OK to steal from an airline?

Should travelers be able to take advantage of mistake fares

Lauren is a thief.

At least that’s how I’ve described people like her in the past — air travelers who find an obvious airfare error online, book it, and then expect to fly.

Lauren is also a victim.

She’s been taken advantage of on two levels. Her online travel agency, Expedia, canceled her ticket only a few days before her scheduled flight from Myanmar to Vancouver on ANA without saying anything, forcing her to buy another seat at the last minute.

And let’s just say the airline industry hasn’t been kind to her in the past. More on that in a moment.

Do two wrongs make a right?

Lauren’s case isn’t easy for this consumer advocate. She knowingly stole from a business that has, in the past, mistreated her. Is that ever justified?

To find out, let’s review a few specifics of her problem. Last year, Lauren (no last names, because I don’t want to embarrass her) found a one-way fare from Myanmar to Canada for $586. In first class. It was an obvious slip, and apparently not the first time the fare error had been made. Lauren believes it was a mistake in a currency conversion.

She’d learned about the error on a site called FlyerTalk, but several other mileage forums and blogs had mentioned the fare mistake as well. You’ll have to forgive me for not linking to the sites, but I can’t promote a criminal activity. Google them if you must.

In the past, I’ve been critical of these forums and blogs for a number of reasons, but mostly because of the fare error issue. An ethically-challenged minority of FlyerTalk users and bloggers gleefully point out the pricing mistakes and then encourage their readers to book blocks of airline seats or hotel rooms. Then, if the business cancels the reservations and refunds the money, they use bullying tactics to pressure the business to “honor” the erroneous price, such as invoking their elite status or threatening to call the media.

I’ve covered these fare error incidents before, and the fare thieves did not like it. Read the comments if you don’t believe me.

By the way, I can’t believe that such behavior is tolerated by these sites. Pointing out a fare error online and urging people to book one is like saying someone’s house isn’t locked and urging everyone to steal from it.

The presence of these opportunists gives all of these sites a bad name, and in my opinion, they should be quickly expelled from the group.

Book a fat finger fare, get stuck in Myanmar

When Lauren showed up for her flight from Yangon to Tokyo a few weeks ago, an ANA representative told her that her flight had been canceled four days before. No one had bothered to tell her.

“The agent said we were not due any compensation and it was not a denied boarding situation,” she says. “I had no tickets.”

Lauren was forced to redeem 140,000 miles, and she lost one nights’ lodging in Tokyo because of the last-minute cancellation.

“That can’t be legal,” she says.

That’s an interesting word to use, because Lauren knew the fare was wrong, but booked it anyway. I’m sure there’s someone over at ANA saying (very politely, in Japanese), “That can’t be legal.”

I asked Lauren: Why’d you do it?

“Quite honestly,” she told me, “because as a frequent flier, I have been screwed over many times by falling through the cracks between responsibilities of travel agents, IT teams, ticketing carriers and operating carriers. I saw this as one of the very few collisions between these players that favored the consumer rather than the companies. Especially for something the airlines knew about in advance and could have prevented.”

I understand. If the situation were reversed, and Lauren had inadvertently booked a ticket that she didn’t want, the airline would keep her money without a second thought. (Fortunately, the U.S. government now has a 24-hour cancellation rule for airline tickets, which prevents some of that from happening.) But it’s true that airlines have not always treated their customers well, imposing ridiculous rules and restrictions on their tickets in order to squeeze a little more money from them.

Is this type of theft excusable?

I get that. And yes, it almost makes the theft excusable.

But not quite.

If we ever want to get justice from an ethically-bankrupt airline industry, we can’t steal from thieves. We — you, Lauren — are better than that. We have to play by the rules, and if we don’t like the rules, we have to ask the government to change them.

Or put differently, two wrongs don’t make a right.

I didn’t mediate Lauren’s case, even though the last-minute cancellation was problematic. I reviewed the apologetic letter that ANA sent her after cancellation, in which it blamed Expedia for pulling the plug on her flight, and concluded that she was fortunate.

For 140,000 miles and a night’s accommodation in Tokyo, Lauren learned that stealing — no matter how justified — is wrong.

Is it ever acceptable to steal from an airline?

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