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Soaring Airfares Take a Sharp Dip Thanks to Delta Glitch

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Delta has admitted that a pricing goof was its fault, and plans to honor customer tickets.

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As travelers who have booked a flight in recent years well know, those once-friendly skies have turned downright aloof. Higher fuel prices, airline mergers, and the bagging of flights in many markets have created a perfect storm of rising airfares, especially during peak travel times.

Between the first quarters of 2005 and 2013, ticket prices crept an average of 6.5%, and that figure has surged dramatically over the holidays. This year, customers who flew on Thanksgiving week paid 9.4% more than the same period in 2012 and 7.3% more this Christmas week over last year's.

The sunnier destinations are drawing the sharpest spikes. Flying to Cancun from Chicago cost 47% more this Thanksgiving week than it did in 2012 and tickets from New York-LaGuardia to Las Vegas climbed nearly 20%.

"The trend of rising airfare is continuing," Travelocity vice president Simon Bramley told the Wall Street Journal. "Unfortunately, there is no respite in sight for holiday travelers."

Cue the record scratch and cut to Thursday morning, when, for a brief two-hour period, a seat on a Delta Airlines (NYSE:DAL) flight to one of the most coveted winter weather escapes on Earth could be had for a little less than a venti soy latte from Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX).

A North Carolina college student hit the Powerball jackpot of tropical travel and got an eight-night trip to Hawaii for just under seven bucks. With taxes, Eric Gesimondo paid a total ticket price of $68. Other customers snapped up round-trip flights all over the country for just $50.

The laughably low fares were the result of an error on the Delta Airlines website, and once it was discovered, customers swiftly took to Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) to spread the day-after-Christmas holiday cheer. As of this printing, the Atlanta-based carrier doesn't have a count of people who were able to exploit the technical glitch and can't yet estimate how costly a mistake it will turn out to be.

Delta has made clear that the pricing goof was its fault and the company will therefore honor the tickets.

This precedent was set by the airline industry back in 2007 when the now-defunct airline ATA dropped a decimal point in its price and let passengers fly from Orlando to Maui for just $118 each way, instead of $1,118.

In September of this year, an online snafu gave away United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) flights -- literally, in some cases -- for $0 to $10. The carrier took ownership of the computer error and let those reservations fly.

But when it happened again just a month later, United welshed on the freebies. The airline claimed that a number of round-trip reservations that bottomed out at $5 were obtained through an "...intentional manipulation of our website" in which passengers found a loophole to buy tickets with frequent flyer miles they didn't actually have.

Pricey mistakes -- like El Al Israel Airlines (OTCMKTS:ELALY) unwittingly selling $1,600 tickets to Israel for $300-plus -- are apparently common enough that FareCompare has offered a set of tips for seeking them out and landing them quickly:

"It's almost easier for mistake fares to find you rather than the other way around, so sign up for airfare alerts and let technology do the work for you. When incredible prices appear, you'll hear about them."
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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