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What are the Halachic implications of yesterday's El Al airfare snafu? In brief, El Al's air tickets were being sold online very cheap for a while; the price was later corrected, and El Al claimed the price had been due to a third party's error; and by law El Al must honor the low price for paid-for tickets.

Most of the issues I can think of are really variations on the same theme:

If you knew it was an error, could you buy the tickets?

If you did not know but assumed it was an error, could you buy the tickets?

If you thought it might possibly be an error, could you buy the tickets?

If you did not realize it was an error but your travel agent mentioned as much while booking your tickets, should you have stopped him from executing the transaction?

If you had no idea until after purchasing the tickets, do you have an obligation to offer to El Al to make amends (whether that means asking to cancel without penalty or offering the pay the difference or even canceling despite taking a penalty)?

Does the fact that El Al has virtually no way of forcing passengers to pay the difference or of canceling their tickets make any difference to my last question above?

In terms of application, I think this can be used as a perfect model for varying degrees of the same issue, that can arise in practically any business.

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Someone asked something related on Avodah (so new that it's not even in the main archives) 1 2 –  b a Aug 7 '12 at 19:32
    
There are so many details specific to this case that I suspect it might be "too localized." –  Dave Aug 7 '12 at 19:56
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What if El Al just wants to claim it was an error, but in fact did it on purpose? –  Yishai Aug 7 '12 at 20:12
    
@Dave, I think this can be used as a perfect model for varying degrees of the same issue causing a difference in Halachic application. –  Seth J Aug 7 '12 at 20:13
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@SethJ I think your most recent comment belongs in the question. –  Double AA Aug 8 '12 at 2:58

2 Answers 2

Rabbi Yair Hoffman has an analysis in the 5 Towns Jewish Times here (hat-tip to VIN for pointing me to it):

The article views the question primarily around the issue of Onaah which it defines as 16.7% above or below market value (and possibly just a pricing mistake regardless). If that issue applied, then the sale would be invalid. The conclusion of the article is that the fact that the price was wrong because the fuel surcharge was not included is controlling, and makes the fuel surcharge not part of the sale, so El Al's failure to include it does not obligate the buyer to return it.

It then concludes with the possibility that beyond the letter of the law as a matter of personal discretion.

Notice that it seems the whole discussion is only about what is practical now (the sale is over) and thus the focus on Onaah, which could actually undo a done sale, rather than just prevent one, and does not deal much with the question of if it should have been bought in the first place.

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This was also asked on Dinonline and answered by them :

Question: A nice Jewish boy sees a mistake online to purchase tickets to Israel from a Jewish company (ELAL). It gets posted on a forum and within hours thousands of tickets are purchased at the mistaken price before the company is able to correct the mistake. The company is probably going to lose hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars from this mistake.

Halachik points to ponder:

A) It is a mistaken fare can I go L’chatchila and purchase this fare? Is there a Halachik difference if I am purchasing it from a Non Jewish middleman (Expedia), or from the Jewish company directly.

B) There are DOT and FAA rules that specifically discuss price mistakes,and state that even an egregious error must be honored or face fines of up to $27,000 per occurrence. What is the Halachik viewpoint on this, does this make this transaction fall under the rules of Dina D’malchusa?

C) Elal has announced that it will honor the tickets purchased and it would seem(?) that for now it is permissible to use the ticket, as they are making a business decision to honor the mistake rather than risk business fallout and/or potential fines. What if they were to deny the tickets and cancel all of them. Can I complain to the DOT to compel them to honor them or to receive compensation?

D) I am the first one to notice this mistake, am I allowed to post this deal to allow others to jump in? What about the Chiyuv of “Hashavas Aveidah”, and “Lo Sa’amod al Dam”. I know that he is taking a financial hit from this am I obligated to inform him? Am I allowed to purchase it for myself? Can I tell my friends if it is already public knowledge?

E) What are the the Halachk ramifications of “Onah” price mistakes in excess of 1/6?

Answer: The final point you mention is the most important. The mistake in the price of the tickets was clearly far more than the ona’ah rate of 1/6, and therefore it would not be permitted to make the most of it, and purchase tickets from a Jewish seller at the mistaken rate. This halachah does not apply to a non-Jewish seller.

In the same vein, it would not be permitted to “spread the word” and cause others to take advantage of the mistake.

The halachah applies in spite of the fact that the secular law obligates them to honor the contract. This will be of possible interest bedi’eved, but not on a lechatchilah level. Even for less that 1/6 difference in price, where the sale cannot be voided or the ona’ah collected, it is forbidden to exploit mistakes (this point is subject to a dispute among rishonim; see Rosh on Perek Ha-Zahav).

However, there is room to argue that an airline ticket is “ein gufo mamon,” meaning that it is not actual money (its value is only its potential to allow a person into the plane and on the flight) and therefore the laws of ona’ah will not apply here.

Nonetheless, because the airline certainly does not mean to sell tickets for this price, and the entire sale is a mistake which was presumably caused by a computer error, it follows that in Torah law the sale does not stand, and it is not permitted to take advantage of this mistake.

Bedieved, if El Al state that they forego the mistake, a purchased ticket can be used. Although the law forces them to forego the mistake, this will not be considered talyuhu ve-yahiv — it cannot be compared to a gunman who forces somebody to forego his money at gunpoint, because every airline trades with the knowledge that in cases of mistakes it will have to forego the mistake, and when the airline begins trading it does so with intention of foregoing such mistakes should they happen, so that bedieved the airline ticket can be used.

Best wishes.

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I wish this answer more explored the Expedia issue. It seems to treat at as irrelevant, but doesn't explain why. –  Yishai May 27 at 18:19

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