Chatbot messup! Air Canada must pay damages after chatbot lies to grieving passenger about discount

Air Canada must pay a passenger hundreds of dollars in damages after its online chatbot gave the guy wrong information before he booked a flight.

Jake Moffatt took the airline to a small-claims tribunal after the biz refused to refund him for flights he booked from Vancouver to Toronto following the death of his grandmother in November last year. Before he bought the tickets, he researched Air Canada's bereavement fares – special low rates for those traveling due to the loss of an immediate family member – by querying its website chatbot.

The virtual assistant told him that if he purchased a normal-price ticket he would have up to 90 days to claim back a bereavement discount. Following that advice, Moffatt booked a one-way CA$794.98 ticket to Toronto, presumably to attend the funeral or be with family, and later an CA$845.38 flight back to Vancouver.

He also spoke to an Air Canada representative who confirmed he would be able to get a bereavement discount on his flights and that he should expect to pay roughly $380 to get to Toronto and back. Crucially, the rep didn't say anything about being able to claim the discount as money back after purchasing a ticket. 

When Moffatt later submitted his claim for a refund, and included a copy of his grandmother's death certificate, all well within that 90-day window, Air Canada turned him down.

Staff at the airline told him bereavement fare rates can't be claimed back after having already purchased flights, a policy at odds with what the support chatbot told Moffatt. It's understood the virtual assistant was automated, and not a person sat at a keyboard miles away.

Unhappy with this situation – a support bot telling him the wrong info – Moffatt took the airline to a tribunal, claiming the corporation was negligent and misrepresented information, leaving him out of pocket.

Air Canada, however, argued it shouldn't be held liable for the chatbot's faulty outputs, without explaining why, which baffled tribunal member Christopher Rivers.

"Air Canada argues it cannot be held liable for information provided by one of its agents, servants, or representatives – including a chatbot. It does not explain why it believes that is the case," he wrote in his decision on Wednesday.

"In effect, Air Canada suggests the chatbot is a separate legal entity that is responsible for its own actions. While a chatbot has an interactive component, it is still just a part of Air Canada's website. It should be obvious to Air Canada that it is responsible for all the information on its website. It makes no difference whether the information comes from a static page or a chatbot."

Air Canada said its chatbot provided a link to a page on its website explaining that refunds for discounted fares cannot be claimed retroactively, and Moffatt should have clicked on it. But Rivers didn't agree.

"It does not explain why the webpage titled 'Bereavement travel' was inherently more trustworthy than its chatbot. It also does not explain why customers should have to double-check information found in one part of its website on another part of its website," he wrote.

Rivers said Air Canada didn't take "reasonable care to ensure its chatbot was accurate," and that customers like Moffatt wouldn't have known why information on Air Canada's webpage should be more correct than its chatbot. Air Canada was ordered to pay Moffatt a total of CA$812.02, including CA$650.88 in damages.

A spokesperson for Air Canada told The Register the airline will comply with Rivers' ruling, and considered the matter now closed.

The dispute is a perfect case to remind ourselves that automated chatbots will regurgitate false information, so use them at your own risk – unless you're happy and able to extract damages, natch.