Mistake or Marketing? Airlines Cash-In On Errors

by | Mar 7, 2019 | Airlines

Mistakes happen—that’s why they put erasers on pencils—or so the conventional wisdom goes.

There are online communities and websites dedicated to finding airline error-fares and jumping on the opportunity to fly for a fraction of the price.

Two Hong-Kong based carriers out-did themselves to turn a costly mistake into a golden opportunity and created good-will for their brands along the way.

Hong Kong Airlines got the world’s attention last year with a candid admission that too-good-to-be-true transpacific business class fares would be honored, despite the costs.

Hong Kong Airlines on Twitter: “So about that 600 USD business class transpacific fare ?….we did it, we will honour it, and perhaps a few people will get to travel on our news business class product being introduced in September to LA. What’s not to like?✈️”

On his personal Twitter account, the airline’s CMO, George Lieu, confirmed that this was not a marketing stunt, but a legitimate error that the airline would make good on. 

George Liu on Twitter: “No, it wasn’t intentional…definitely not a marketing gimmick. We really screwed up. It hit when I was BBQing at a friend’s house on my vacation. We have decided to honor the tickets at our own cost.We are willing to pay a price to keep our promises as a brand.”   

The airline capitalized on this ‘momentary lapse of reason’ by shining in its response to the error on social media. The airline’s official account actively engaged in real-time with followers, with self-deprecating humor and cute GIFs. The result was plenty of positive press coverage.

The airline went one step further to turn this whoops! into a win by asking business class passengers who travelled on the deep-discount to share their onboard experience on social media using the hashtags #hkairlines and #businessclassfare. A few of the lucky travelers who flew business for far less than the usual fare were happy to oblige.

Missy Aberle Kesterke on Instagram: “We are enjoying Hong Kong Airline’s mistake fare… new Airbus A350 from LAX to Bangkok. Follow me @destinations_with_kids for updates…”

This follow-up marketing campaign, conducted in February of this year, also helped revive the positive buzz around Hong Kong Airlines—all stemming from a mistake made in August of last year. Smart squared!

Cathay Pacific evidently took careful notes of how Hong Kong Airlines handled its fare error. On New Year’s Day 2019, Cathay published its own mega-mistake fare discounting business class tickets on flights from Vietnam to New York. While Cathay quickly corrected the error, its social media team confirmed that the airline would honour tickets that were already purchased.  

Cathay Pacific on Twitter: “Happy 2019 all, and to those who bought our good – VERY good surprise ‘special’ on New Year’s Day, yes — we made a mistake but we look forward to welcoming you on board with your ticket issued. Hope this will make your 2019 ‘special’ too!.#promisemadepromisekept #lessonlearnt”      

Like Hong Kong Airlines, Cathay earned positive feedback from followers on social media and earned free advertising through high-profile stories.  

Of course, mistake fares are not ideal, but as Dennis Owen, General Manager of Branding and Social Media at Hong Kong Airlines (formerly Brand Manager and Group Manager Social Media at Cathay Pacific) put it, “You can’t prevent all negatives in business. But you can decide to respond well to them.”

Written by Marisa Garcia – Flightchic.com