baSome things are just too good to be true. Like a British Airways flight to Mumbai for $40, offered briefly yesterday. Such a deal!

Such a … mistake! (Here’s an update on the story.)

My colleague Janice Hough alerted me to the problem early Saturday. Here’s the fare display she pulled up:

$DSFOBLR4OCT*BA
FO-BLR SUN-04OCT09 BA
PM 12753 AT
TAXES/FEES NOT INCLUDED
PUBLIC FARES
CX FARE FARE C AP MIN/ SEASONS…… MR GI DT
USD BASIS MAX
1 BA 40.00R BL2RT B 13JUL -10DEC R AT
2 BA 40.00R HLRCNA H 7Š SU/12M 13JUL -10DEC R AT
3 BA 40.00R KLRCNA K 7Š SU/12M 13JUL -10DEC R AT
4 BA 40.00R LLNCNA L 7Š SU/12M 13JUL -10DEC R AT
5 BA 40.00R MLRCNA M 7Š SU/12M 13JUL -10DEC R AT

That’s a $40 base fare, not including taxes and fees.

What’s going on here? Hough said, “I think BA fired the wrong programmer.”

Perhaps. But a lot of folks thought this was a real fare, including my colleague Katie Hammel.

I was one of the people who heard about the low fare to Mumbai on British Airways last night and excitedly booked my ticket on Orbitz.com. My card was charged (over $1,100 for the two round trip tickets is still “pending” on my debit card, which means it is unavailable to me) and received an email saying that I would get my confirmation from the airline soon. I started planning my trip, only to wake up this morning to a second email from Orbitz saying that “due to limited quantities”, the order could not be fulfilled.

I’ve now found out via Twitter that the fare was the result of a glitch. Those who bought tickets before the error was corrected will still receive them. I “bought” my tickets before then – when I clicked “purchase”, the fare listed was around $550 per person round trip [after taxes]. I am hoping that Orbitz and British Airways will honor my purchase and have sent them an email asking that they do.

I’m wondering… is there anything else I can do to get the fare, and what are the rules on this sort of thing? I blog for the website Gadling and was planning on putting up a little post on what happened. I wanted to include some general guidelines on how airlines handle it, but can’t find anything. Can you point me to any resources or offer your insight?

I asked Orbitz about the glitch. It responded early this morning with the following statement:

Last night, British Airways misfiled fares for some flights between the U.S. and India. These fares appeared on some online booking sites, including Orbitz. A number of Orbitz customers attempted to book these flights. Our attempts to ticket these flights with British Airways were rejected. When we became aware of these rejections, we promptly notified impacted customers that we were unable to ticket their requested flights. We regret the inconvenience our customers experienced.

I’ve written about pricing errors, which are often referred to as “fat-finger” fares, numerous times. Here’s my take: Knowingly booking one of these tickets is, in my opinion, wrong. Which is to say, if you are aware that this is a mistake and try to buy it anyway, you’re stealing.

There are some who knew better, but went ahead and tried to book it anyway. I have no sympathy for them.

But travelers who think it’s just a really good price — and $550 is not too good to be true — have a real reason to be upset about an airline not honoring the fare. It also puts agencies like Orbitz in a difficult spot.

Bottom line: There’s no easy way for a regular traveler to avoid a fare mistake like this.

Update: Two sources are telling me that some of these fares are being honored. I’ve asked British Airways for a comment, and will update this post when it responds.

Update: (Monday, noon) British Airways has answered –

It seems there was an honest mistake in a fare filing. What was a $40 increase on a USA-India fare was somehow filed as the fare.

Apparently it was corrected within a couple hours, but not before lots of people (don’t have numbers yet) booked tickets. Orbitz realized the error and discontinued selling the incorrect fare.

I just spoke with someone in London and the plan is to rescind the fare – we will have to contact everyone that booked and apologize that this was a mistake and we sincerely apologize for the incorrect fare filing.

Update: (Tuesday noon) I checked with British Airways to see if anything had changed. Here’s the carrier’s response:

Our position still stands.

British Airways apologizes for the issue which arose for two hours on Friday, October 2, on bookings between USA and India.

We are investigating how the error occurred which meant that seats were available for $40 roundtrip plus taxes, fees and surcharges.

Due to the fare being so clearly below the normal fare, we have cancelled all bookings made in this two hour period between USA and India.

We will be refunding all the seats booked at these fares.

British Airways will be contacting the affected customers and would urge them to contact their travel agent or British Airways, if they booked directly with the airline, to claim a refund and be offered alternative travel arrangements.