My belated thoughts on the El-Al ticket giveaway

Paper Treiger is in a perpetual state of catch-up. For the past month, I’ve had better things to do than write (hard as that is to believe), so expect the next few posts to be more catch-upy than usual.

And since I’ll also have better things to do for much of the forseeable future, expect that catch-up to take a while. In other words, I’m never going to catch up, and I’m OK with that.

In the meantime, no need to point out that what I choose to write about isn’t news. You’re right. It’s what I choose to write about. And in this case (as you probably already figured out), what I choose to write about is the El-Al ticket fiasco of early August. Just because I didn’t have time to write over the past month doesn’t mean I had no time to read, and I ended up reading a number of articles debating whether or not those lucky enough to have bought the heavily discounted tickets should keep them, or return them to the third-party dealers unlucky enough to have sold them without accounting for fuel and other ‘hidden’ costs.

It occurred to me that that none of those articles included two considerations I thought worthy of mention, somewhere. Before I share them, two disclaimers:

One) Each consideration might be read to suggest a particular course of action. The point of this post is not to tell people what to do, both because I know I’m too late and because there are obviously other considerations necessary to reach a conclusion; these are just two of them.

Two) I acknowledge that it’s entirely possibly one or both of these considerations were, in fact, mentioned elsewhere on the internet. As I said, I read ‘a number’, not ‘every article’. That would be impossible. Do you know how much internet there is? There is so much internet. I don’t know why I bother adding to it.

To the actual post, i.e. the promised considerations:

One) Many of those writing about the sale – for instance, Randy Cohen (AKA The Ethicist), as cited in Moment Magazine – describe it as a ‘mistake’, akin to a grocery store labeling steaks at 12 cents/pound. On the whole, the analogy works – but with one key caveat.

When a grocery store makes such an error, the effect is likely limited to a single transaction. What happened here resulted from the breakdown of a system that – in general – works quite well for the third party-sellers. In fact, the system is their entire business model: without an automated method for finding and displaying low prices to the entire internet (which, as established above, is large), Expedia, and Co., would be just another travel agent.

But expecting a system – any system – to be perfect is unrealistic. Grocers make mistakes, and when they make them on a regular basis, they don’t tend to last long as grocers (one would hope). But when the grocer can conduct hundreds of transactions in a short period of time, that efficiency magnifies the cost of failure – just as it magnifies, under normal circumstances, profit. And because failure is inevitable, the cost of failure is – or should be – built into profit margins.

Assuming Orbitz makes any money, it’s made much more by selling tickets through these systems than it would have otherwise – epic El-Al failure nonwithstanding. What happened in early August is just the cost of doing business.

Two) Another argument for people not returning the tickets was that if the situation were reversed – had someone accidentally bought a ticket an enormously inflated price – the big, evil corporation who sold the overpriced ticket would simply take the money and run.*

*To be clear: this position was articulated to me in person, and not in any article. It might well be out there, but that’s a detail; I believe my response to this particular claim is relevant whether or not it was posted online.

Turns out, that’s not true.

On July 4th, I flew from Newark to Seattle. Thirteen days later, I received the following email:

MORDECHAI TREIGER, we promised you’d get the lowest price … and we meant it.

Expect to receive your Orbitz Price Assurance(SM) refund check in the next 6-8 weeks.

You earned this refund because another Orbitz customer booked the same itinerary at a lower price.

I had never heard of a company offering a refund because a ticket had later been bought at a lower price, so I googled ‘Orbitz Price Assurance’, which helped a little, and emailed Orbitz Customer support to clarify:

Dear Mr. Treiger:

Thank you for contacting Orbitz regarding a pending Price Assurance Refund. It is my understanding that you would like to know if anything is needed our your part to receive your refund.

There is nothing you need to do, the check will process and be mailed to the billing address on file in 6-8 weeks.

Unfortunately, it turned out Orbitz was lying: the $30 check actually arrived last week, about 5 weeks from when the company first contacted me.

Orbitz Price Assurance(SM) is also obviously part of the company’s cost of doing business in that it inspires customer confidence, and might attract purchases that might have otherwise gone to an airline or to a fourth party. That said, Orbitz seems to have gone out of its way to do the ‘right thing’, and I think that should count for ‘some thing’.

More interestingly, I’m curious whether Orbitz plans to apply Price Assurance to the El Al tickets and those who bought the same itineraries before the discount will get money back. I can’t imagine they will, but according to the strict letter of Orbitz’s policy, maybe they should.

———————————————————————————

Above, I wrote that this post would not include any advice for those who bought the tickets. I lied. Here’s some: don’t use them! Air travel these days is terrible. As Bill Nye would say, Consider the Following:

Within the past 24 hours, I and my two brothers were scheduled to fly east, on three separate flights.

Flight 1) About an hour before leaving to the airport, I tried to print my boarding pass only to discover I had been involuntarily bumped from my red-eye to a flight that would depart Seattle at 6AM Sunday morning. Needless to say, this abrupt rescheduling was inconvenient for the person driving me to the airport, the person picking me up from the airport, and for myself (law school orientation begins 9AM Monday morning, i.e. in seven hours). I headed to the airport anyway. There, I learned that the flight had been canceled and an email sent to every scheduled passenger notifying them of this change nearly two months ago.

It’s possible that email was diverted to spam, but I’m skeptical it was ever sent. I received my initial confirmation email, and I received my reminder to check in, so I find it hard to believe that the most important of those three emails – the one that changed the flight from 11PM to 6AM – was singled out as spam.

But let’s assume for a moment that the email was sent: If Orbitz can call my cell phone every single time my flight is delayed by fifteen minutes, why can American muster but a single email? Why is there no ‘Confirm receipt’ button customers can use to acknowledge they are aware of such an important change? Why did American automatically re-book me on a 6AM flight with a layover in Dallas rather than on its 7AM direct flight that would get me in to New York an hour earlier? To American’s credit, they did let me switch flights, but I still landed about 6 hours later than originally planned; rather than spending my last day of freedom relaxing and getting settled in, I spent it on a plane.

Flight 2) Meanwhile, Brother #1 was originally scheduled on an 8:30 AM flight on Sunday, and my rescheduling for 7AM forced him to leave for the airport an hour and a half earlier than planned. That sounds inconvenient, but it actually turned out for the best, because when he showed up for his flight two hours early, he learned that it had just been canceled. He tried to get onto my flight, but missed the cut-off by two minutes, and was instead rebooked through Arizona. He arrived in Newark at midnight – inconvenient both because of the time, and because it meant he had to take a $100+ taxi home rather than the simple train/busride he could have taken from his originally-scheduled destination (JFK). I look forward to his abuse of United Customer Service.

Flight 3) Brother #2’s plane actually departed on time Saturday night, but his bag arrived in Boston with the zipper to an exterior compartment open, and its contents were nowhere to be found. The main compartment had been reorganized, but there was no note from TSA indicating it had been screened. Unless that note also fell out, I suspect someone rummaged through in search of valuables. They found none – my brother is smarter than to fly with anything monetarily valuable in his stowaway – but their carelessness did result in the loss of property with personal value to him.

For those keeping score at home, that’s Airlines 3, Treigers 0.

Airlines are the worst.

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