One issue that comes up repeatedly in the questions and comments we get has to do with the ethics of paying a fair price. One example involves a situation like a yard sale when a buyer recognizes an object as being worth far more than the seller is asking. We think the general rule is that there’s no ethical obligation to pay more. The price was set by the seller, and let’s face it, one of the big attractions of yard sales is the possibility of finding a great bargain. Still, when the price difference is major, we’re inclined to think the fairest approach is to split the difference.
Other questions concern what to do when a cashier makes a mistake and charges you less for an item than the marked price. Many people will correct the error if it’s a small store but feel less obliged when dealing with a big conglomerate, especially if it’s one of those corporations he or she feels takes advantage of consumers. That makes no sense from an ethical point of view. Mistakes should be corrected as soon as they’re discovered, no matter who the seller is. You’d certainly correct the mistake if you were charged too much, so how do you justify not correcting it when you’re charged too little?
Last week, this dilemma was taken to an entirely new plane (pun intended) when the Delta Airline website went amiss and starting selling plane tickets at very low prices—as little as $25 for trips that were supposed to be priced at over $400. News of the mistake, the apparent result of a programming error, quickly spread on social media sites during the two hours it took Delta to make a correction. Subsequently, Delta announced that it would honor all tickets bought at the incorrect fare. According to the Associated Press, Department of Transportation rules required Delta to do that.
Mark Memmott, writing on NPR’s Two-Way News blog, asked about the ethics of buying tickets at obviously incorrect prices. His column included a poll and as of midday Sunday, 74 percent of responders in the unscientific survey said it was okay to make the purchase and keep the ticket.
The Transportation Department rules provide legal cover for that position, but it runs counter to our general view that mistakes should be corrected by the buyer. We recognize some special circumstances at work here. One is the fact that the pricing of airline tickets is one of the world’s most bizarre mysteries. They bounce around, often for no apparent reason, to the great frustration of travelers. When pricing seems to have no obvious logic behind it other than to keep us guessing, it’s tempting to take advantage of the mistake.
Another problem is that this was a web transaction. There was no cashier or waiter around to fix the error on the spot. We’d be curious to know if anyone called Delta to point out the error. That would be the ideal solution in our view, but making that kind of call to a big company involves one of those dreadful time-consuming call center trees that can waste a lot of time. Not something anyone volunteers for.
If you don’t want to make the call, your options are limited. You can either buy the ticket or decline, and if you decline, you risk losing out on the trip. Wait two hours and the flight may be full, especially with others rushing to take advantage of the deal. So we can understand people who went ahead and bought the ticket. (This is not to say we sanction going on Facebook to advertise the error. That’s akin to inviting looters to an empty store if you discover the door’s unlocked.)
If I tried to be objective and ethical about the Delta situation—and if I could control it—I’d be inclined to go back to the yard sale example and suggest splitting the difference with Delta. But I can see how some may see that as a cop-out—a compromise to hide the fact that I can’t make up my mind.
So what do you think? Let’s put a somewhat different spin on the NPR question. Assume you bought the ticket at the cheap price knowing it was probably a mistake and Delta then asked you to voluntarily relinquish it and buy another at the higher rate. What would you do?
By appearing magnanimous, Delta received a good deal of favorable publicity. The company thus received something of value from the transactions, and I see no reason to compensate it for its error.
One of the problems of a totally automated shopping website is not being able to catch pricing errors at the checkout counter. If the shopper is obliged to report the error then the site should provide a means of communication.
But once the seller knows of the problem, the question of moral fairness is primarily about weighing the benefits and harms.
If the tickets are for some future date, then the error may be corrected with no real harm to the buyer. The seller has the buyer’s contact information and can advise them that the correct ticket price is due.
If the ticket is for this morning’s flight, then the error may harm the buyer, who has already made significant decisions based on the price. In this case, a large company may absorb the cost of the mistake.
But if the company cannot absorb the cost of the mistake, and it is reasonable to assume the buyer knew it was a mistake, then the ticket need not be honored. (It’s not like the customer was not aware that tickets are often not honored due to weather conditions, etc).
Marvin, I think that’s a very sound way of looking at it.