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Orbitz’s Fares Were Flights of Fancy

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The travel website isn’t the only company to be fined for misleading airfare ads.

The Department of Transportation fined online travel company Orbitz $60,000 on Tuesday for misleading advertisements that failed to mention taxes and fees, and in some cases, promoted fares which were no longer available.

Orbitz blamed the ads, which appeared in early 2011, on a computer “glitch.”  Consumers selecting discounted fares advertised by the site  were instead taken to a page where different rates was displayed.

To be fair to Orbitz, this is the first time in the company’s 10-year history it’s been hit with such a fine. “Orbitz is in compliance with Department of Transportation advertising requirements and the glitch that resulted in how fares were displayed for a short period of time earlier this year has been addressed,” Orbitz spokesman Chris Chiames said in a statement. But Air Canada, Spirit, JetBlue, United Airways, Continental have all been hit with fines for failing to inform passengers of various charges.

Leaving fees and charges to the fine print – or excluding them entirely – is not uncommon, experts say. But nor are the reasons given. “Other companies have been guilty of advertising fares without full disclosure,” says George Hobica from the fare-tracking site AirfareWatchdog.com. “I’ve never seen a glitch in the system that’s on the customer’s side,” says Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and syndicated columnist. “Those computer glitches always seem to be beneficial for the airline.”

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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