Korean Air Bungles Palau Fare Mixup

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Airline pricing is a science that I’ll probably never understand. Most of the time I’m frustrated with how much tickets cost (especially last minute tickets), but once in a while amazing deals come along that finally make you feel like you got a great bargain. This year alone I went to Stockholm and Copenhagen on Delta/KLM for $149 total roundtrip and Madrid for $260 on American (and upgraded to business class with systemwide upgrades!).

In early September of this year Korean Air had a fare listed from the US to Palau (Pacific Island nation for those geographically challenged) on certain dates for as low as $560 roundtrip from NYC and $485 from the west coast. While I didn’t get in on this deal (frankly way too long in coach for me!), it was available on popular booking sites like Expedia and Travelocity for more than 4 days and hundreds of savvy travelers got in on the deal and got ticketed and confirmed reservations.

Fast forward two months and Korean Airlines ends up sending a letter to those who purchased this fare letting them know they wouldn’t honor the fare, but they would refund and give $200 towards future Korean Air travel (plus pay for any non-refundable hotels/incidentals).

“”At the beginning of September, an erroneous fare was briefly published for travel on Korean Air from North America to Palau. We regret to inform you that Korean Air is unable to honor this erroneous fare for travel and has cancelled all tickets, including yours.”

In my opinion this is completely unacceptable for a number of reasons:

1) Two months to make a decision on a “mistake” is totally ludicrous. I would understand their position if they caught it right away and let people know within days. However, holding hundreds of thousands of dollars of passengers money for months and then offering a pittance for people’s troubles is corporate irresponsibility at its finest. I mean, who the heck would want to fly Korean Air again after their vacations were ruined?

2) This fare was not a mistake fare in the sense that it was something ridiculous, like 2 cents or missing a digit. It was an actual fare, albeit for travel agents, but it was mistakenly published for anyone to buy. From my perspective, if you are a company that does not invest in technology or the audit process to catch such mistakes, then you should eat the cost when those mistakes happen.

3) Airlines charge an arm and a leg when passengers want to make changes. Why should an airline be allowed to unilaterally cancel valid tickets because it’s no longer in their best interest to honor them? I understand this may be legally allowed via the contract of carriage that they created, but it still doesn’t make it right.

4) There are more damages than just directly related non-refundable hotels and incidentals. Some people were supposed to fly as early as this week.  Not everyone has extreme flexibility when requesting vacation from work, so there are now people stuck with time off and nowhere to go – and good luck finding a last minute ticket for any reasonable price these days. Some people also spent hours planning their Palau vacation and now all of that time was wasted for nothing. Some people purchased diving certification and bought other related items that will not be refunded by Korean.

In fact TPG reader Daniel emails me, “My fiance and I had booked this trip for our honeymoon. Now, two months after it being ticketed, we were emailed that the tickets were being cancelled. Now if we can’t get Korean to honor, we’re stuck starting from scratch with less than two months to go to plan a new honeymoon! This was by no means a free flight that we booked (~$700/per person) it just worked out to be a pretty good deal with good timing for us to what seems like a beautiful place … we thought at least.”

I’m not a lawyer and I’m not trying to say that Korean Air violated any laws here. What I am saying is that I think their actions are irresponsible and completely customer unfriendly. As consumers, especially in the social media age, I think it’s important that we demand corporate responsibility. Even though I didn’t book one of these fares, I still support the group of people who are now stuck in a really bad situation.

If you feel so inclined, Korean Air can be Tweeted @KoreanAir and their US based VP who emailed everyone with their cancellation notices is Johnathan Jackson, @kalman_jj. TPG reader Leigh put together a handy media toolkit for those who want to complain in a constructive way (this is good to have bookmarked for any future flight issues you may encounter).

In general, I hope Korean and the online travel agencies that sold these tickets can work together to do the right thing and honor this fare. I’ve never flown Korean, but their current advertising campaign portrays them as a classy, sleek and customer-focused airline and unfortunately I’m not seeing any of that based on how they’ve handled this situation.
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