File photo: Joshua McCarthy, 21, was sitting next to his parents on a British Airways flight from Dubai to Heathrow in April when he became aggressive after drinking five small bottles of wine.

Cape Town - Not a week goes by without me hearing from a consumer who responded to an online or traditional advert for a product or a service, wanted to buy it, but discovered at some point that the price was “a mistake” and the actual price was higher.

That scenario usually creates huge conflict between the consumer and the supplier, understandably.

Vic Menhard of Durban’s experience with British Airways (Comair) was refreshingly different. Prompted by his wife Lindy’s need to fly to Joburg at short notice, he went online to look for the best prices three weeks ago.

“I came across an absolute bargain on the British Airways site at R250 each way, and then tried to book online. But when I entered the details of the flights, the amount of R2 000 flashed up, so I did not conclude the purchase.”

Menhard then called the airline and spoke to agent Robyn Friedman, who told him that the price – R250 each way – was an error and that the actual fare was R1 000, as the advertised price had excluded all airport taxes and levies.

“I then drew her attention to the web page where it stated – in two places – that the advertised price included all import taxes

. I also pointed out that the advert in question had been up on the site for at least eight hours and that this was more than enough time for them to correct it.”

Then he suggested to Friedman that she contact her superiors “to find out what they would do about it”, and left his phone number with her.

Most people wouldn’t have been terribly hopeful of a response under those circumstances, but Friedman did call Menhard back the following morning, asking for details of his wife’s preferred flight times.

A short while later she emailed Menhard, confirming the flights at the advertised price, with an apology for the inconvenience caused.

“Robyn did what I asked her to do – take up the issue with her superiors – and she phoned back when she promised she would, very unusual in today’s business world, so she really did look after her client’s interests. I would like to commend both Robyn for her professionalism, and British Airways (Comair) for honouring what their website offered, despite this being an error.”

Great stuff.

So did Menhard have a legal right to insist that the advertised flight prices be honoured, even though they were incorrect?

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) is not as clear as it could be on this issue, so consumer goods and services ombudsman Neville Melville released a detailed “advisory note” on this issue last year, as much needed guidance for both suppliers and consumers.

Section 23 of the CPA states that if a displayed price contains an inadvertent and obvious error, the supplier is not bound by it, provided they correct the error and take “reasonable steps” to inform consumers who may have been exposed to it.

Then, a few pages on, Section 30 says this: “A supplier must not advertise any particular goods or services as being available at a specified price in a manner that may result in consumers being misled or deceived (about) the actual availability of those goods or services from that supplier, at that advertised price.”

What are reasonable steps?

In the case of a displayed error, such steps would be withdrawing the product from sale, correcting the price or label on the shelf, and then making the product available for sale again.

In the case of an incorrect price being placed online, or in a newspaper advertisement, email, text, catalogue or pamphlet, it meant replacing the advert in good time and re-advertising a notification alerting consumers to the error and correct price, or notifying them via email or text, Melville said.

In other words, it’s not good enough to claim the advert is a mistake and then leave it online for several hours.

Melville also suggested that, in the case of in-store display price mistakes, suppliers put up notices at the affected stores and keep photographic proof of the notices, as well as a record of who put them up and when.

And here’s something to remember if you ever make a special trip to a store to buy an item on the basis of an advertised price – Melville suggests that stores compensate customers for wasted trips by means of cash or vouchers.

Give that a try if it happens to you, and let me know how the store manager responds.

Melville also suggested something to retailers which would spare consumers everywhere a lot of effort and frustration over “wrong” prices: “Appoint a specific employee to be responsible to check for price errors.”

Excellent idea – and that person would need to bear in mind that online transactions do not only happen in business hours.

So to come back to my question: yes, in this case, given that the “mistake” price remained on the BA website for at least eight hours, I’d say Menhard was legally entitled to the flights at the advertised price.

Well done, BA. - Cape Times