By Hugo Martin • Los Angeles Times

Travelers love those insanely cheap fares that airlines sometimes post by mistake, such as when Cathay Pacific Airways in January sold $16,000 business-class tickets from Da Nang in Vietnam to New York for as little as $675 round trip.

But carriers have found a way to more quickly cancel those cheap mistake fares.

The Airline Tariff Publishing Co., an airline-owned clearinghouse that feeds fare information to more than 400 airlines, has upgraded its software to replace erroneous domestic fares within 15 minutes after they are distributed to online travel agencies, with international fares replaced within an hour.

Before the upgrade, the Virginia-based company, known as ATPCO, took an hour or longer to replace mistaken domestic fares and as long as a day to replace erroneous international fares.

ATPCO began installing the software upgrades to fix erroneous domestic fares last year and started addressing international fares in March.

The ultra-low fares are usually the result of human error when the prices are punched into the system by hand or when they are converted into foreign currency prices, experts say.

Airfare mistakes are rare — occurring only a few times each month among the hundreds of millions of fares posted daily by all the world’s airlines. But when mistakes happen, sharp-eyed travelers are quick to book the deals before the error gets fixed.

“The problem is less about how often it happens and more about the magnitude of the error,” said David Mark Smith, head of standards and industry relations for ATPCO, noting that word about a fare error can be spread across social media as fast as it takes to tap a keyboard button.

In fact, several websites now specialize in identifying mistakes and notifying travelers about the deals. The founders of such sites say the number of mistake fares hasn’t declined dramatically in the past year or so but they do disappear more quickly.

“The new ATPCO technology is an interesting step forward but not entirely foolproof, still allowing for the occasional error to slip through,” said Shahab Siddiqui, who founded Cheapflightsfinder.com.

Scott Keyes, the founder of Scottscheapflights.com, said he has identified 31 mistake fares in 2019 alone, including a $396 round-trip fare from Los Angeles to Fiji on Fiji Airways and a $377 round-trip fare from New York to Kenya on Kenya Airways.

To take advantage of erroneous fares, Keyes said, travelers have to be quick to buy the tickets and flexible about when they can take the flight.

“The more flexibility, the greater your ability to book a mistake fare,” he said.

Airlines in the U.S. are forbidden from raising the price of a ticket after it has been booked but federal law does not require airlines to honor fares that are published by mistake.

In the past few years, airlines haven’t been consistent about responding to mistaken fares, by honoring the erroneous fares on some occasions and other times canceling reservations on them.

Even with ATPCO’s new software fix, Smith said, airlines can lose tens of millions of dollars in the 15 minutes that erroneous fares are published.

“It’s constantly being evaluated for how big an issue it is in the market,” he said of mistake fares.

Among the biggest fare errors was the round-trip tickets that Hong Kong Airlines offered last year for a business-class seat from Los Angeles or San Francisco to several Asian cities for $561 — a fraction of the usual price.

Delta Air Lines mistakenly published one-way tickets in 2013 from Minneapolis to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for $51, and tickets from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Philadelphia for $35, about one-tenth the normal price. Delta honored only those tickets that were paid for before the error was discovered.

In 2012, United Airlines published fares from the U.S. to Hong Kong for about $35. The carrier canceled all the reservations made for the mistake fare.

Keyes got the idea to launch his travel website in 2013 when he stumbled upon a nonstop, round-trip fare from New York to Milan for only $130 — clearly a mistake.

Once his friends heard about the deal, they asked to be notified about the next ultra-cheap fare he found. Eventually, he launched a website that employs 40 people and searches for mistake fares and unadvertised, bargain tickets.

“They are still popping up quite a bit,” he said. “It’s really exciting. It’s the holy grail for travelers.”

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