Southwest (LUV) was hit with a $200,000 fine from the Department of Transportation for advertising low airfares that practically nobody could get.
Earlier this year, the airline ran its "Luv a Fare Sale," offering one-way tickets under $100 for travel on Valentine's Day. But the government said that the advertised prices were vanishingly difficult to get a hold of. For instance, on flights between Atlanta and Las Vegas, just 2 percent of seats could be had at that the advertised sale fare; between Minneapolis and Phoenix, just 1 percent of seats qualified.
Another sale held by Southwest in January advertised a $66 fare between the country music mecca of Branson, Mo. and Dallas, but the government found that Southwest didn't offer a single seat at that fare between the two airports.
Unfortunately for Southwest, federal rules hold that "failure to have a reasonable number of seats available at the advertised fare" is a violation of the law, and constitutes unfair and deceptive practices.
In it defense, Southwest argued that despite the low rates in certain city-pair markets, in total less than 10 percent of all routes advertised in the sale actually sold out. It also said that the nonexistent Branson-Dallas fare was due to a technical screw-up. Nevertheless, the Department of Transportation rules that the airline must pay $200,000 for its transgressions.
That's a slap on the wrist for Southwest, which last week reported $10 billion in revenue for the second quarter. But the ruling should be a reminder to travelers that fare sales aren't always as generous as they might appear. If you see a great limited-time fare out of your city, jump on it before the few seats the carrier has available at that price are sold out. And if the fare disappears suspiciously fast, consider sending a tip to the DOT that the airline might be up to something fishy.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.