If I’ve learned anything, it’s that if a deal seems too good to be true, there’s probably a computer glitch involved. Just such a problem in the computer system at United Airlines last Sunday allowed customers to book first class flights to Hong Kong and other places in Asia, connecting through Hong Kong, for a grand total of four frequent flier miles and $33 in taxes.
Usually a business class seat on United to Hong Kong runs around $8,500 or 120,000 frequent flier miles, while first class costs $10,250 or 140,000 miles, just to be it into perspective. The news spread fast in online forums, and soon enough hundreds or maybe thousands of fliers booked tickets, says the Associated Press.
United eventually said it wasn’t going to honor any tickets already sold, and that customers could get a refund without paying a penalty or have the right amount of miles deducted. For those already on their trips, they lucked out and will be allowed to complete their travel.
So what about that Department of Transportation’s consumer protection rule prohibiting airlines from “increasing the price after the consumer completes the purchase”? Several people complained, so the DOT is investigating.
“Our rule on post-purchase price increases applies to frequent flier tickets, particularly when they also entail cash payments,” a DOT spokesman said.
However, the cost advertised was the correct one. Searching for tickets would have brought up the cost of 120,000 miles, but when customers went to book the ticket for that amount, the figure of four miles appeared. If you did happen to have the full 120,000 in your account, it was actually deducted. If you had less, no miles were deducted.
The DOT hasn’t yet reached a conclusion, but the maximum penalty per violation — in this case, each ticket sold by United counts as a separate violation — is $27,500. The government has wide discretion in what amount to actually fine, however.
While customers think the tickets should be honored, since it was United’s mistake, the founder of AirfareWatchdog makes a good point:
“When a waiter adds up the check wrong in my favor, I let him or her know. When a clerk hands me back too much change, I give it back,” he said. “These fliers knew that this was a mistake, and they should treat an airline the same way they treat any other entity.”
The battle over $33 flights to Hong Kong [Associated Press]