Topic: Business & Commercial

Attack of the Frequently Unethical Fliers

Multiple Choice Question #1: If someone noticed that an airline was selling tickets for $1.86, what would he be most likely to think?

A) Wow! This must be some new promotion!

B) Boy, nobody must want to go to those cities!

C.) Gee, plane tickets really are getting cheaperÂ…

D.) Oops! Somebody made a big mistake.

Correct answer: D. Everybody knows that you can hardly get a subway ride for $1.86 This has to be a mistake, and an expensive one.

Question #2: If you notice that a company has obviously made a pricing error that will cost it thousands of dollars, the right thing to do is:

A) Snap up as many tickets as you can before the airline finds out.

B) Use the nearly free tickets to inflate your frequent flyer miles.

C) Tell all your friends about the mistake, so they can join you in grabbing as many of the mispriced tickets as possible.

D) Tell strangers about the mistake so you can make sure as many cheap tickets are bought as possible.

F) Call the airline and alert it before it gets killed.

Tough question, you say? It shouldn’t be. If a bank teller hands you 1000 dollars when you only have ten coming, your ethical duty is to alert him and give $9,990 back. To do otherwise is the equivalent of stealing. If you notice that a bank teller has slipped a cog, and is giving everybody who comes to his window $1000, you don’t run to that teller’s line and tell your friends to do the same: your duty as a responsible, honest and fair citizen is to alert the bank, and your responsibility to the teller is to do what you can to stop him. The right answer to Question #2 is F.

So why, when US Airways recently posted a $1.86 price on certain round-trip flights out of certain airports (cursed computers!) were over a thousand purchased, costing the financially strapped carrier a couple hundred thousand dollars it could ill afford? Well, it helped that a website,, posted the mistake to its frequent flyer miles hungry members, inducing many of them to buy multiple tickets. But mostly this occurred because greed and opportunism, plus the inexplicable inability of too many people to see the human beings behind big corporations prompted normal consumers to grab an expensive product knowing that they weren’t paying for it, many doing so without even a twinge of conscience.

Call it virtual looting. The looter’s primary rationalization is that the merchandise is there for the taking, so why not? These ticket buyers were no different, except that their dishonesty could not be punished: companies are legally bound to honor their listed prices, even when they are the result of computer gremlins or human goofs. And the ticket-looters had many rationalizations to rely on:

  • If they didn’t snap up the tickets, someone else would.
  • This was a once in a lifetime situation.
  • One more ticket won’t make a difference.
  • This wasn’t their fault.
  • Air travel costs too much anyway: they had this coming.
  • If a company makes a mistake this stupid, it deserves to lose money.
  • They’re poor and the airline is rich.
  • Lots of other people were doing it.

Each one of these is as ethically invalid as the next.

The pricing was an obvious error, and the company was going to lose lots of money as a result. Taking advantage of the error was wrong. Encouraging others to take advantage of the error, thus increasing the economic damage to the airline, was also wrong (think of the website as the guy with the bullhorn during a riot telling the looters where the best stores were located.). Not trying to alert the company to the error so that it could limit its losses was wrong.

An ethical person will usually recognize the right thing to do and do it, even when the wrong thing is easier, risk-free, and popular. Unethical people, on the other hand, apparently like to fly out of Altoona and Johnstown, Pa.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Asheville, N.C.; Bradford, Pa.; Hilton Head, S.C.; Watertown, N.Y.; and Lebanon, N.H.


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