Jewish Journal

Delta screwed up. Should Jews take advantage?

by Jared Sichel

December 27, 2013 | 10:42 am

Ivan Cholakov / Shutterstock.com

New York to Honolulu, round-trip, tax included: $85

Cleveland to Los Angeles, round-trip, tax included: $52

Los Angeles to Honolulu, round-trip, tax included: $60

These were a few of the amazingly low fares available Thursday on Delta Airlines from 10 a.m. until noon ET. Dan's Deals, a bargain-hunting website that's particularly popular amongst observant Jews, posted Thursday, "HURRY! CRAZY DELTA PRICE MISTAKES!," alerting its followers to snatch tickets before Delta rectified the error. 593 people commented on the post. Here are some of them:

"Thanks! Just purchased 2 round trip tickets JFK –> LAX on 1/23-1/27 for a TOTAL of $50.82!"

"JFK-PHX for Memorial Day = $39 business class. :-D"

"Just bought my ticket to LA for winter break for $42.11! Thanks Dan!"

"4 Bus class tix in May 2014 JFK – SAN, $39.40 each. Awesome."

"YEEEEEEAAHH!! Just booked 2 ticks JFK to Los Angeles. I was going to miss a cuzin’s bar mitzvah, they are going to be so happy. Huge surprise!"

"just shorted delta stock."

One female commenter wrote that she purchased four tickets, her four sisters in seminary purchased a total of 25 tickets over Passover break, and her fifth sister purchased seven tickets--each ticket was $46. She didn't specify the origin or destination of the tickets but one can presume that's one heck of a discount, especially if the seminary is in Israel.

These deals weren't just for coach tickets. They applied to business class and first class, according to TheStar.com:

"Airfarewatchdogs.com, a travel and fare lookout website, said fares went as low as $40 for a round trip between New York and Los Angeles, and $200 for a first-class round trip ticket between Los Angeles and Hawaii. Economy rates for round-trip travel between New York and Los Angeles on Delta typically cost around $400 or more. A first-class round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Hawaii for the second week of January currently costs more than $3,500 on the Delta website."

This author's initial reaction when he heard about the deal (too late) was disappointment. He booked a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu about two weeks ago at full price, over $400. Yesterday, the same exact flight was selling at a better than 75 percent discount. Friends of his are taking unexpected vacations, and flying business and first class on the way! Meanwhile, he'll be squeezed into a coach chair, sitting next to a wailing infant, drinking flat Diet Coke and eating stale pretzels. It's no fun to miss out on a deal. Bargains don't only feel good because you're paying less. They feel good because you think you "won." It's an ego boost and an adrenaline rush to be part of a select club of people flying first class, round-trip from New York to Puerto Rico for less money than it takes to fill up your car.

But it's also an ethical dilemma.

Is it right to take advantage of a company's pricing error? Writing this, the author imagines a portion of readers will view him as a goodie two-shoes. But so be it; It's a legitimate moral question. At what point would someone feel that they undercompensated a company for a good they received? What if flights from New York to Honolulu were $0? Would that make people think a second time? What if, in what would be an even quirkier glitch, Delta Airlines also offered $100 gift cards along with a $0 round-trip Tel Aviv to Philadelphia flight? Would that make the sisters studying in an Orthodox seminary do a double-take before clicking, "Purchase?"

That the only reaction to the Delta glitch seems to be glee suggests something: An overwhelming number of Americans feel that businesses, or at least businesses that don't resemble a neighborhood flower shop, deserve to be taken advantage of. If Delta, or Wal-Mart, or Costco, makes a pricing mistake, well, that's their problem. They overcharged me last time anyways, right?

But let us take this attitude to it's logical conclusion. What if Delta didn't fix the mistake after two hours? What if it took a month to fix the fares but Delta was still legally required (as it is now) to honor all advertised prices? People would rush to purchase every last ticket, not considering that doing so would endanger the survival of the very business that's flying them from Point A to Point B (let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Delta doesn't have insurance for this).

Purchasing a Delta glitch ticket is not, theft, to be clear. But it's also not the ideal. Economic ethics is a two-way street. We expect to be fairly compensated when we give companies cash. We should be expected to fairly compensate them when they give us goods and provide us with services. A $39 business class ticket from New York to Phoenix doesn't seem like fair compensation to Delta. Again, not theft. But not ideal.

A local rabbi who this author spoke with this morning said that he saw incredible deals to New York on Thursday morning. Before he saw the deal, he was actually hoping to take a trip there with his family. Perfect, right? Well, he decided against taking advantage of Delta. Why? Because he was concerned that doing so would help give Jews (and God) a bad name. He thinks that it is mostly Jews who took advantage of the glitch (perhaps thanks in large part to Dan's Deals), and that it will be obvious to staff at Delta, when going through the list of bargain buyers, that a lot of Cohens and Levins are flying the JFK-LAX route. This, he fears, will help lower the esteem of Jews in some peoples' eyes.

The Talmud somewhat addresses this in Bava Metzia:

"R. Chaninah told this story: Some rabbinic scholars bought one pile of wheat from some gentile soldiers. [The scholars] found in it a bundle of money and returned it to [the soldiers]. [The soldiers] said 'Blessed is the G-d of the Jews.'"

It's not perfectly analogous to the Delta situation, but the point is that Jews should hold themselves to an elevated moral standard because doing so is a kiddush HaShem, a sanctifcation of God's name. Presumably, acting unethically (even only a tad bit), could be a chillul HaShem, a desecration of God's name. 

If this author had heard about the deal on time, perhaps he would've also taken advantage of Delta and written a post rationalizing why it's the company's obligation to post correct prices, not the consumer's obligation to speculate about what constitute's fair compensation, and not the Jewish consumer's obligation to figure out the line between sanctification and desecration of God's name.

But he got to the party late, so here he is agitating his good friends who were lucky enough to raid Delta before it fixed the glitch.

The point here is not to judge. The nature of any ethical dilemma is that both sides have legitimate arguments. For one, major companies usually account, in advance, for a certain amount of money that will be lost throughout the year--often through outright theft, in the case of a department store, but also through day-to-day errors. 

But it's disconcerting that a huge portion of Americans, and Jews in particular, seem to have ignored the very existence of an ethical dilemma in this case. This author has no beef with someone who thought through the ethics and decided it was ok to purchase a glitch ticket. But one would hope that at the very least, if anyone would be concerned about ethical dilemmas, consumer obligations and chillul HaShem, it would be the sister who bragged in a public forum that her four siblings (studying Torah) in seminary purchased round-trip Passover glitch tickets for $46 apiece.

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Jared is a staff reporter for the Jewish Journal. Raised in North Potomac, MD, a sleepy suburb 30 minutes outside Washington D.C., Jared attended Tulane University in America’s...

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