Someone must be sweating tonight, as United Airlines has confirmed (though it was quite obvious) that human error led to a widespread “fare sale” today in which domestic trips ranging from shorthaul flights from Minneapolis to Houston to longhauls between Honolulu and Washington were selling for $0–with just the 9/11 “security fee” added, meaning final prices were $5-10 for round-trip travel.
Bargain hunters went crazy and some–just check out this thread on Flyertalk–booked over two dozen tickets. United has only confirmed that this was an error and they are examining the situation.
Does United have the right to cancel these tickets?
Once again, the DOT guidelines make crystal clear the answer is NO—
Does the prohibition on post-purchase price increases in section 399.88(a) apply in the situation where a carrier mistakenly offers an airfare due to a computer problem or human error and a consumer purchases the ticket at that fare before the carrier is able to fix the mistake?
Section 399.88(a) states that it is an unfair and deceptive practice for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, or of a tour or tour component that includes scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation to a consumer after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of a government-imposed tax or fee and only if the passenger is advised of a possible increase before purchasing a ticket. A purchase occurs when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer. Therefore, if a consumer purchases a fare and that consumer receives confirmation (such as a confirmation email and/or the purchase appears on their credit card statement or online account summary) of their purchase, then the seller of air transportation cannot increase the price of that air transportation to that consumer, even when the fare is a “mistake.” A contract of carriage provision that reserves the right to cancel such ticketed purchases or reserves the right to raise the fare cannot legalize the practice described above. The Enforcement Office would consider any contract of carriage provision that attempts to relieve a carrier of the prohibition against post-purchase price increase to be an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 41712.
Unlike the “4-Mile” First Class error in which the correct price was displayed up until the final confirmation screen, here the $5-$10 final price was displayed throughout the booking process.
But that doesn’t mean United won’t try to find a way to wiggle out of this, using equity arguments to assert that no one could reasonably believe the fares were valid or that a $0 fare is different than a mistake fare. All such arguments are unconvincing.
I have spent the day working out of the United Club at Chicago O’Hare and was taking a shower when this deal hit Flyertalk and then booking award tickets in the final moments of the deal, oblivious to what was going on. By the time I figured out what was going on, United had already disabled the ability to book both revenue and award tickets–
Aaron Goldberg, United’s representative to MilePoint and Flyertalk offered the following:
One of our filings today contained an error which resulted in certain fares displaying as zero. This has been corrected and united.com is currently available for reservations.
I realize many of you have questions about bookings that were made today, and we will share those details when they become available.
Sr. Manager – Customer Experience Planning
There is a moral debate to be had on booking $0 fares, but I see this situation as divine retribution for the unreasonable and unannounced increase in change fees earlier this year.
United should honor these fares and learn to be more prudent in filing future fares…the DOT should not continue to excuse United’s carelessness.