Mistake fares are all the rage. I mean who wouldn't like to buy a ticket across the pond in First Class for 44 US Dollars?! The bottom line is that they were mistakes, they were never intended to be sold and someone in IT is being chased around the airline office by an executive with a stapler. Whether or not they were mistakes, all airline ticket purchases are guarded by government watch dogs and raising the price on a consumer after purchase is illegal and forbidden. This bears the question; why would an airline rather risk being fined millions by the government than just honor the fares...
Regardless of the rules, airlines, unless they have to, never want to honor dirt cheap mistake fares. In general, the United States has one of the most consumer friendly approaches to mistake fares, whether it intends to or not. The law clearly states that a ticket price cannot be changed, once purchased, for any travel within, to or from the United States. If you booked travel on a foreign carrier on a foreign website for travel that crosses into the United States, you are theoretically covered by US Laws and the ticket should be honored. If you booked travel from a US site, on a US carrier, for travel within the US, these laws are even more airtight and should always be honored. It doesn't mean it will be.
In the case of the recent United Airlines mistake fares, the airline voided the tickets very swiftly, telling passengers they will not be honored, though they had no right to by law. By any and all ways I can interpret the law, this voiding fits precisely into the Department's ruling, forbiding this exact behavior and according to law as it presently stands, these tickets should be honored. I personally don't think IT glitches and idiots loading fares into a computer incorrectly were intended to fall within the scope of this Department of Transportation ruling, but for now, they do. Until the airlines pay enough money in lobbying fees to change the rules creating exemptions for "mistakes", anyone who bought a ticket should raise holy hell. Mistake or not, it was a completed purchase protected by the Department of Transportation. Airlines have gotten very good at arguing finer points of the issue and some have successfully voided or cancelled mistake fares without penalty. Even though they have no right to cancel your ticket, they may be able to. Voiding fares that people paid for theoretically puts an airline in the crosshairs of the government and even if it requires taking a loss, I can't think of anyone who would want that. For now, they may be able to can cancel those tickets, but they certainly can't sell those same tickets to someone else for a greater price than the mistake fare already listed.
Many airlines, including Delta Airlines (who are in my crosshairs for different reasons) have simply taken the lump and honored the fare, which I think is the classy thing to do. Who wouldn't want the positive PR and site attention that a few cheap tickets created. Within reason its a marketing dream. Emirates have recently actually created fares that were so good, they looked like mistake fares, just to grab some social media, travel blog and press attention.
I've personally never grabbed a mistake fare and I am not sure I am glued to my phone enough to ever get in on one in time. The truth is that most "too good to be true" fares are kept in closed quarters so that the public doesn't cash in and ruin the game for those who found it. Use your Points & Miles to fly for free, its the only thing cheaper than mistake fares.
As always: firstname.lastname@example.org