A Canadian couple are among 300 would-be travellers outraged after their winter vacations were cancelled because Korean Air tickets they bought online were not supposed to be sold to consumers.
"We are completely devastated and angry," said Justin Oberdornfinger, from Ottawa, who bought airline tickets on Expedia.ca. "Two months of planning for a wonderful vacation are gone down the drain."
Oberdornfinger and his girlfriend paid for the deeply discounted fares in September, along with hundreds of other North Americans. The deal was for winter travel, over several weeks, to the South Pacific tourist destination of Palau.
The couple's total cost per ticket was under $600 — for round trip fares from New York in February.
"Finding an amazing deal to go to Asia or the South Pacific in general is really hard, and when something like this goes by you just have to go ahead and grab it," said Oberdornfinger.
"I did a lot of research on what to do in Palau. My girlfriend and I were ecstatic."
Agents only deal
Two months later, he said they were blindsided when the tickets were suddenly cancelled. The offer was a promotional deal for travel agents only, which the online travel agencies were not supposed to post or sell.
"Everything that is advertised on Expedia is meant to be purchased by consumers. This fare, however, was a mistake fare which should have never been advertised," said Oberdornfinger.
The discounted fares were also posted on Travelocity, but most of the customers CBC News heard from bought their tickets on Expedia.
"Expedia should have never posted this fare on the internet if they are not going to honour it," Oberdornfinger said.
Korean Air notified people that their tickets were void and their money would be refunded.
"Korean Air also is reimbursing affected customers for expenses incurred as a result of having purchased the incorrect fare, such as cancellation fees for flights, hotels, ground transportation, and other arrangements," said a statement from the airline.
In addition, Korean Air is offering affected passengers a $200 travel voucher for a future flight to any Korean Air destination from a U.S. gateway.
Rebooking not affordable
"It's three or four times more expensive to rebook, and I don't have the money," said Oberdornfinger. "It should be unacceptable for an airline to cancel tickets whenever they feel like it."
Submit your story ideas:
- Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.
- We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.
- We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.
In Korean Air's fare rules, sent out initially by Expedia with ticket confirmations, the code AR-75 was listed with several other codes.
AR-75 is airline lingo for 75 per cent agent discount. Several travel industry sources said that code should have been a red flag for Expedia not to post or sell the tickets to the public.
"The airline lays the responsibility on the issuing agency that the passenger has met all of the fare rule provisions," said Barry Chen, a travel agent with Fairwind Travel.
Chen said it's likely nobody at Expedia checked the rules, as any travel agent should.
Agent Naeem Thavar, owner of GalaTravels.com, also said Expedia should have known better.
"For travel agents, reduced rates aren't advertised, and shouldn't be made available," said Thavar.
"I've never heard of a travel agent discount being honoured by an airline for a customer who has booked that flight. It's not bookable."
Upset with Expedia
Several U.S. customers told CBC News Expedia has done nothing to make up for their ruined vacation plans.
"They have totally disowned me as a customer," said Neal Andrews. "They have not … offered any go-between with the airline."
Nicholas Guarqueta said when he asked Expedia why it sold him an agent-only fare without checking to see if he qualified, "they blatantly said they don't have any internal controls to check for that."
A statement sent to CBC News by a PR firm representing Expedia referred questions to Korean Air and didn't explain how or why the restricted fares were posted.
"At Expedia.ca we are committed to our customers, including supporting them in the rare instances such as this. We work closely with our partners, including Korean Air, to make things right whether that be options to complete travel or obtain an appropriate refund," read the statement.
Further questions were not answered. CBC News was told no one from Expedia could be reached for direct comment, because they were in Las Vegas for an annual get-together.
Do you book travel online? Take our survey.
Toronto lawyer Calin Lawrynowicz, who specializes in business and contract law, said customers like Oberdornfinger could sue, but that could take months.
"I would likely suggest that Expedia … pay the difference of the tickets between themselves and the airline, in order so the passengers could go," said Lawrynowicz.
Peril of booking online
He said this case highlights one of the perils of booking flights online, where customers are expected to read and agree to fare rules with industry codes only travel agents understand.
"I myself have looked online to go and buy tickets, but unless I'm directly dealing and not through an agent, I am uncomfortable," said Lawrynowicz.
"When I see some of the small print, I'm saying [even as a lawyer] I would never understand it."
In Ontario, where Oberdornfinger bought his ticket, Expedia and other agencies are registered with the Travel Industry Council of Ontario.
However, TICO CEO Michael Pepper said, because refunds are being issued, Expedia has fulfilled the rules his organization enforces.
"We won't be taking any action on this," he said.
On customer complaints about travel industry lingo they can't understand, he said, "There's always room for improvement and if this becomes an issue it will be looked at."
"The fare rules are pretty much gibberish," said Oberdornfinger. "It's like you are expected to know everything yourself."