Who is at Risk?
In the USA and Europe there are regulations that protect the consumer. Basically, if an airline publishes a fare and you buy it you are protected — even if the fare is a fraction of the normal price.
But there are some big exceptions — and that’s where consumers need to get smart or risk being hit with a big bill at check in, being refused boarding or, in some cases, running the risk of having their frequent flyer accounts cancelled.
In the US and Europe consumers are protected -- with some important exceptions:
- Consumer protections do not extend to fraudulently purchased tickets.
- In the US, protection has recently been modified so that an airline has the right to cancel a ticket if the error was obvious (for example, a first class ticket was priced the same as an economy ticket) and if the error was put on blogs or discount travel sites resulting in a large number of purchases.
It's a bit more complicated than that but that's the part that counts in the case of a real error. Most important, the fact that an error was made does not override the other terms of the contract that consumers and airlines enter into when a ticket is purchased.
The Contract - What you need to know
When you buy any airline ticket you enter into a binding contract with the airline. This is all spelled out in the terms and conditions that are available online. While most people probably don’t read these rules and conditions carefully, this legally binding contract is pretty simple at its core. The airlineagrees to transport the passenger from A to B. Things like seating arrangements, weather delays, timelines, compensation in the event of an accident or loss of baggage are all spelled out. The consumer agrees to one really important requirement: You agree to follow the rules the airline lays down.
So how does this affect you if you purchase an “error fare” or “mistake fare”?
While they vary between airlines, the most common rules that apply to the purchase of a bogus “error” or “mistake” fare are listed below.
Typical Prohibitions in the "Contract of Carriage"
- You are prohibited from using “hidden ticketing”
- You agree to fly the various legs of your flight in the correct sequence
- You agree that if a leg is not flown ALL the subsequent legs will be cancelled and there will no refund of the fares for those legs
- You agree that the airline may freeze or take away your frequent flyer account if you violate certain policies or rules
- You agree that the airline may change the type of plane or flight route for any reason it chooses.
- You agree that you will abide by the rules
You can see that the airline has loaded the dice in its favor. While the consumer has many protections such as compensation for lost baggage, compensation for certain flight cancellations, compensations for accidents and protection against price increases, the airlines have also protected themselves against efforts to abuse their fares or "game" the system.