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 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.