Is it ever OK to steal from an airline?

Andrew Popov/Shutterstock
Andrew Popov/Shutterstock
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.

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.

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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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Jared

    The missing logic is that Airlines could easily program their systems to never allow a price less then the cost of the flight to be entered or use the same logic I’m supposed to know a fair is unreasonable. If a unreasonable fair can be defined they can have code that prevents their employee from entering such a fair and also constantly scan their listed fairs for anomalies because of a change in exchange rate. Amazingly the ticket can also be verified again at time of issuing the ticket to verify against their “unreasonable” definition and altert themselves and error out until its corrected

    There is no reasonable excuse given a definition of unreasonable fair that one should ever enter into the system. It is 100% the fault of the airline for not putting in the proper safeguards into their computer systems. If an airline cannot explain to their own employees (programmers) what an unreasonable fair is then it is 100% unreasonable to expect a consumer to do the same.

    tldr; If an airline can define unreasonable then they can prevent it and it is their fault. If they can’t define unreasonable then no one should be expected to know and they should honor the tickets.

  • Wandering Historian

    Qualifying someone taking advantage of fare error as theft seems to me a little extreme, even your question stems from the presumption that Lauren’s act was theft, at most this would be an act of Moral dubiousness. Whether one knew of the error in the listed price would bring to question the level of empathy in that individual, but I fail to see how knowing of error or an taking advantage of an intentional sale are different. If a company decided to put to sale their offering at 90% discounted price, any customer would be hailed as a savvy consumer, perhaps the line get’s blurred when it feels like a consumer is taking advantage of a supplying company but again i would say that it is a moral question. Those offering any product or services have a duty to provide that product or service in exchange for a set listed price, how that price is determined is typically driven by market demands, competition, and differentiating factors. The fact that Airlines have decided to use a very complex system where prices may change minute to minute is their prerogative and all the power to them to be able to implement this, but then complaining and leaving a consumer in the cold when it comes to honouring that contract because of an “error” seems disingenuous on their part. Airlines are not required to use a complex algorithm to set their airfares that typically has no human oversight over than model verification, they choose to use those systems as they’ve identified that this was the method they can use to Maximize their profits. If that choice has allowed errors to creep into the system the fault is their own.

    I realize that I sound like I’m trying to justify the questionable actions of those that took advantage of this error, and perhaps I am, but rather I am trying to object to the negative characterization of the consumer as the fault is rather the airlines, and not the consumers. Leaving the customer out in the cold is no way for any customer oriented business to behave. Perhaps an analogy of an outlet mall may be poignant here, if a customer purchases all their “name brand” products at 30 cents on the dollar from outlet stores, they can hardly be blames for taking advantage of a bargain that the company has offered through a portal available to them.

    Yes, forums such as flyertalk may have spread out this error on the internet, but global companies such as airlines cannot complain that the same tactics they use to charge signification different prices for the same product have been used on them when they make an error.

    Airlines and agent sites have the power to set any prices they choose for a product or service, consumers should have the same right to purchase that same product or service at any listed price they provide.

  • Daniel

    If she’s a thief, what law did she break?

    Furthermore, even if the company had the right not to honor the contract (ticket), it can still be responsible for damages arising out of its untimely cancellation of her ticket.

  • Keilee

    Playing by the rules isn’t stealing. It’s responsible. Airlines are responsible to their shareholdersstakeholders and focus on generating revenue while reducing operating costs. They analyze laws applicable to them and take advantage of unintended loopholes when they can. Private citizens are not being responsible to their stakeholders (their families and themselves) if they don’t do the same thing.

  • MaxNanasy

    I believe Rowan’s point is that he’s not a world traveler, so he doesn’t always realize that a given price is “too good to be true”.