AER LINGUS was under growing pressure last night to honour bookings for hundreds of flights to the US that it mistakenly sold for only €5 each. Paul Cullen, Consumer Affairs Correspondent, reports.
Over 100 customers availed of the cheap transatlantic seats on Wednesday before the airline cancelled them, blaming a technical error on its website. Many bought multiple business class seats, which the airline says normally cost €1,775 each way.
The National Consumer Agency, which claims the airline is in breach of contract, last night warned it would be issuing advice on legal options today "if sense doesn't prevail in the interim".
While publicly the airline says it won't budge, it is believed that executives are considering arrangements for customers who bought connecting flights, car hire or accommodation which are non-refundable.
Aer Lingus declined to put a figure on the potential cost of the 90-minute glitch in its booking website, but an estimate puts it at over €1 million.
The consumer agency chief executive Ann Fitzgerald called on the airline to propose a reasonable compromise as the only way to avoid "a PR disaster".
"Blaming a technical error in their booking system is not good enough. Aer Lingus formed a contract with the consumer at the stated fare and cannot simply walk away from its obligations."
Scores of customers who bought the bargain tickets contacted newspapers, radio stations and internet bulletin boards yesterday to vent their frustration.
Many said they had booked the tickets to attend weddings or other special events in the US and could not afford to pay the higher prices now demanded by Aer Lingus.
The Consumers' Association of Ireland also called for the customers to be compensated.
An Aer Lingus spokeswoman said the company had to make a stand on the issue. Anyone who booked the cheap tickets "would have known it was a mistake when they made the bookings".
The problem arose from a special offer where customers who bought a premier class seat were to be given a second for free, the spokeswoman said.
"The problem was the free seats actually leaked on to the website."
Dublin-based Kirsty Anderson told The Irish Timesshe paid €330 including taxes for two tickets to Boston, only to have them cancelled. The money has been taken from her account.
Another customer said she was distraught after the cancellation of the two Aer Lingus tickets she had bought to travel to New York for a honeymoon trip.
The central issue which will determine whether Aer Lingus customers are entitled to the €5 flights they bought is whether they knew the airline had made a mistake, according to barrister and contract law lecturer Paul Anthony McDermott.
If customers knew the price was the result of an error, they are not entitled to benefit from this mistake, he said.
If, on the other hand, they suspected nothing, they may well be able to prove they have a right to see the original contract fulfilled.