We all love an error fare.
The opportunity to fly somewhere for a fraction of the usual price would appeal to anyone. Even the randomness of the destination, which you may have never even considered before, can get your pulse racing. But what exactly causes a mistake fare?
The Fuel Surcharge
First, we must understand the components that make up an airline ticket.
In the early years of the commercial aviation industry, only the base fare and tax components were present on an airline ticket. It was not until the 1973 oil crisis, dubbed “The First Oil Shock”, that forced airlines to add a third component in order to combat the volatile and unpredictable nature of oil prices. Airlines could no longer factor the fuel cost in the base fare and so creating this third component allowed them to specifically cover the cost of oil at whatever price it was indexed.
When the crisis ended and the price of oil stabilised, many airlines controversially kept the fuel surcharge component which still exists today. Some now believe it was to minimise the amount of commission paid to the huge growth of travel agencies in the 1970s – the commission paid by airlines to travel agents was calculated from the base fare only.
Others claim that the reason for keeping the YQ was due to the introduction of Frequent Flyer Programs.
Passengers can earn points/miles with a specific airline each time they fly with them. They can use these points towards a “free” upgrade or flight. Except, it’s anything but free. Although the base fare is waived, the passenger must still pay the tax and surcharges on the ticket. The airlines simply could not afford to allow passengers to literally fly for free, so this was the airlines’ way of ensuring there was minimal financial loss. For example, a Virgin Atlantic frequent flyer would still have to pay almost $600 cash after using 73,500 of their miles on a return economy fare from New York to Dubai. Not exactly a free flight.
So now we understand the existence of the fuel surcharge component, we can look at how and why it can be eliminated from the ticket.
Here are the 3 main causes of an error fare:
Because the fuel surcharge component was added after commercial airline reservation systems were created, it left the possibility of glitches/errors occurring. Airlines are aware that errors can occur on their complex, outdated systems, however, the cost of constantly finding and fixing them far outweigh their potential losses. These glitches typically occur when more than 1 airline is present on the same ticket. The Fuel Surcharge of the long-haul flights are “dumped” by the presence of a smaller, cheaper flight. This previous error fare deal from Dublin to Buenos Aires is a good example of a self-dump. The short flight with LAN Airlines has partially eliminated the fuel surcharge on the long-haul Lufthansa flights.
Searching for open-jaw flights can also significantly increase the chances of a self-dump.
Many flight enthusiasts undergo a practise known as “Fuel Dumping”. This is when they intentionally pair specific airlines together on the same ticket in the hope that the fuel surcharge is dumped. We will cover this practise in a future blog post.
2. OTA Glitch
Sometimes Online Travel Agencies (OTA) can be the cause of an error fare. The unintentional discounted tickets are usually the consequence of a missing fuel surcharge, however, it is not necessarily “dumped” with the inclusion of another airline on the ticket. A glitch on the OTA systems can simply cause this to occur with very little understanding why. This error fare from Colombo, Sri Lanka to New York, USA is a good example of an OTA glitch.
The main indication as to whether the error fare is in fact an OTA Glitch, is if the fare cannot be replicated elsewhere.
3. Human Error
In this day and age, everything is computerised in terms of airline ticketing. Well, almost everything. Have you ever thought how airfares are published and prices are set? This requires human intervention and with that comes human error.
When on the subject of mistake fares, the famous United Airlines First Class error fare comes to mind. This error fare was covered by numerous media outlets around the world for the sheer disbelief that tickets typically priced at $4000 were being sold for only $79. United Airlines blamed the error on a third-party software vendor who mistakenly input the wrong Danish Kroner to British Pound currency exchange rate. United airlines refused to honour the fares much to their customers’ dissatisfaction.
Although airlines and OTAs often immediately correct error fares once they are aware of them, there is no doubt that these mistakes will continue to be made. The complexities of the airline reservation systems will continue to cause mishaps, and as long as humans are involved, well, anything’s possible.