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Aer Lingus cancels €5 flights – Go to the Small Claims Court

First things first – if you’re one of the people who purchased the Aer Lingus €5 business class flights, go straight to the Small Claims Court.
Last Tuesday in the Irish Independent where some Value Ireland research was mentioned by Ciaran Brennan in an article called “Check Please”.
A sidebar to that article was called “Undercharging just never seems to happen” and referred to my amazement that companies who make billing errors rarely make the errors in favour of the customer, but nearly always in favour of themselves.
But only two days later, we now hear of the Aer Lingus billing mistake that allowed about 100 customers buy €1775 business class tickets to the US for only €5.
Unfortunately, in the same way that if we’re overcharged for something and we expect to get our money back, Aer Lingus have cancelled all these tickets once the error was found. Their communication to customers who booked the tickets was as follows:

Due to a technical error in our reservation system for a brief period a small number of bookings were priced incorrectly. This email is to notify you of cancellation of your booking and to advise no funds will be deducted from your account.

Dermott Jewell of the Consumer Association made the following comments:’Customers had a binding contract with Aer Lingus. They booked and paid to bind the contract. Realistically Aer Lingus is going to have to do something to abide by the bookings and to help the customers.’
This got me thinking! If an item is incorrectly priced in a shop, the price is considered an “invitation to treat” which means that when as a customer, if we offer to buy at that price, the shop may or may not accept the offer. If the shop in this case notices the mistake, they can then remove the item from sale at the incorrect price. If they don’t notice the mistake and process the sale, then the customer purchases the item at the incorrect price and goes home happy.
In such situations, if the shop discovers after the fact that they sold some items at an incorrect price, they’re not going to follow the customer home and take the item back. Just like Arnotts aren’t going to be able to take my new jacket off me because they got their 40% off signs positioned in the wrong place and their staff didn’t notice.
So, with this Aer Lingus situation, where do customers stand? It would appear to me that Aer Lingus made an offer via their website of business class flights for €5. 100 customers saw the “invitation to treat” and offered €5 for those flights. At the time of confirming their acceptance of the customers offer, Aer Lingus (through their automated booking system) didn’t notice the
incorrect price, and confirmed the offer. And because Aer Lingus confirmed the reservations at that price, presumably a contract was entered into.
From this solicitor’s website, you can see the following is the definition of a “contract offer”:

An offer is essentially an expression of willingness to contract made with the intention that it shall become binding on the person making it as soon as it is accepted by the person to whom it is addressed. It will usually be a matter of construction as to whether or not the offer was made in the first place and whether or not it was intended to create a legally binding agreement. When considering such issues the court will distinguish between an offer and an invitation to treat that is not enforceable. An invitation to treat requires further confirmation by the invitor.

Therefore, in the Aer Lingus situation, there was further confirmation from Aer Lingus since they confirmed the flights at €5. Furthermore, also from the same website, a confirmation or acceptance is described as:

An acceptance is a final and unqualified expression of assent to the terms of an offer. It may sometimes be difficult especially in business to determine when the negotiations have ended and the offer has been accepted. The court will look at the entire negotiation to ascertain whether or not final acceptance had taken place. Acceptance can be deemed to have taken place through the conduct of the parties. The general rule is that acceptance must be communicated to the person who makes the offer, although there are exceptions to this rule, for example where the offer expressly waives the requirement. One of the main exceptions is where acceptance is made by post. In this situation acceptance happens upon the posting of the acceptance. In practice, most contracts in today’s business world will lay down very specific methods of acceptance.

To me, an e-mail confirmation of flight details from Aer Lingus would seem to be a satisfactory exhibition of acceptance on their part – they would use that as an indication of contract if you tried to back out of buying a ticket.
So really, when Enda Corneille, Director of Corporate Affairs at Aer Lingus, comes on the radio and said “anyone who booked a business class ticket, which usually retails at about €1,775, and got it so cheaply should know there was a mistake”, he’s really just saying “wah wah wah, it’s not fair. We screwed up, and got caught out. It’s not fair!” Yet they’ve taken their flights back, cancelled the contract between them and their customers, returned the money, and picked up their ball and scuttled away home.
Now, you can accept his point when he says ‘When you are selling seats on the front of the site quite openly for €249, to sell a business class seat for a fiver is a genuine mistake. People are going to know there’s something up.’
But doesn’t the same thing apply if Munster supporters are trying to book flights to somewhere there’s a game and a normal €5 flight when there’s no game on suddenly becomes €250 on the weekend when there’s a game. There’s definitely “something up” in those situations!
I’m definitely not an expert here, but I presume the defence of Enda Corneile and Aer Lingus is that the consumers didn’t enter into the contract to purchase the €5 ticket “in good faith”. Based on his comment above, there could be seen to have been no good faith on the part of the consumer when they would have known that there’s no way a normally cheap ticket of €249 which could cost €1775 could cost €5.
Unfortunately I can’t find anything on the websites of the Consumer Association or the National Consumer Agency to explain how to handle this kind of situation. That I can find out through a very quick Google search, the “in good faith” principle technically may apply to protecting the consumer rather than the business concerned – it’s intended to prevent any unfair terms being added into contracts which would lessen consumer rights.
If I were one of the people who purchased one of these flights, I’d definitely fight it. They made a contract with Aer Lingus, who’ve now broken it. This is a definite case for the National Consumer Agency (the former Office of Director of Consumer Affairs) – though that would then mean you’d have one state organisation going up against another state organisation, and that’s never really going to happen, is it.
It could also potentially be one for the Small Claims Court though. According to their website:
The small claims procedure is limited to: a claim in respect of goods or services bought for private use from someone selling them in the course of a business (consumer claim). This is provided that the claim does not exceed €2000.00 in each case.
In this situation, consumers have purchased an airline flight for €5 for private from use from Aer Lingus who’s business it is to sell flights. The claim will actually cost more than the flight. A no brainer really!

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