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Airlines no longer have to honor "mistaken" airfares

It used to be that, every now and then, a would-be traveler would get lucky and score a seemingly unbelievable price on an airfare. The airlines, reliant on massive computer systems and legions of employees, would occasionally slip up and publish a fare that appeared to be too good to be true.

There were the bloggers who boasted about scoring round-trip tickets from New Jersey to Italy for $125 per person due to a website pricing glitch. Or the time in 2013 when United Airlines accidentally listed some airfares at $0 -- and honored those tickets even after realizing its mistake.

Alas, it appears those days are over. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced it would no longer uphold a 2011 regulation that barred carriers from increasing the price of a ticket after it had been bought. That means airlines no longer have to honor a mistaken airfare.

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However, the agency continued, the airlines or the entity selling those questionable airfares still have to demonstrate that the fare was a mistake. And in addition to refunding the ticket's purchase price, those selling the mistaken fare must reimburse consumers "for any reasonable, actual and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses" that were made as part of the purchase.

Although the shift in policy appears to protect those travelers who jumped on a mistaken fare from getting financially burned, some travel industry bloggers believe airline customers will end up getting the short end of this regulatory stick.

"Airlines once again have full discretion to make changes or claim a 'mistake,' while consumers are quite limited on that front," laments "the Wandering Aramean" on BoardingArea.com.

"It is not all bad for consumers -- in most cases there is a 24-hour window available to claim a mistake was made," he continues, "but the airlines do not face similar time constraints, or if they do that is not clear in the DOT statement. And that is unfortunate."

Then again, there are those who say that consumers taking advantage of an airline's mistakes are on thin ethical ice to begin with.

"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," consumer advocate and journalist Christopher Elliott wrote back in 2013.

"If we ever want to get justice from an ethically bankrupt airline industry," he added, "we can't steal from thieves."

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