Whenever you see an airline advertise a $59 cross-country fare, you may want to call federal regulators and hold onto your wallet—there might be no such seat available at that price.
That was the case last year at Southwest Airlines (LUV), which was assessed a $300,000 fine by the Department of Transportation over two incidents in which advertised fares did not actually exist in its inventory.
The latest case occurred in October, when Southwest aired television ads in metro Atlanta touting $59 flights to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. (The airline had purchased AirTran Airways, which operated its largest hub in Atlanta, and is converting all of those flights to Southwest’s network.) Regulators levied a $200,000 penalty over those advertisements, which violated federal rules on unfair and deceptive practices. Other cities in the Atlanta sale did have $59 fares.
The Atlanta incident also triggered an additional $100,000 fine that had been suspended in July 2013 in a similar case. “DOT’s full-fare advertising rules were put into place to ensure that consumers are not deceived when they search for plane tickets,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
In the DOT’s consent order, Southwest said that mentioning those three cities was “an inadvertent error that resulted from a flawed review of advertising copy language.” The airline told investigators it pulled most of the ads from broadcast on the day the mistake was discovered.