A flurry of commentary has poured forth today over the 4-mile United Airlines First Class award redemptions to China available briefly yesterday on united.com. As a frequent traveler who has cashed in on many “mistake” fares in the past and as a person with legal training in the realm of contract law, I must add my two cents to this controversy.
United has responded, stating that they will not honor the fare:
Hi Everyone, over the weekend, we discovered a united.com programming error that allowed customers to obtain Mileage Plus travel awards to and from Hong Kong for as little as four miles roundtrip per person, substantially below published levels, which we disclose to customers. We have since corrected the error and will be in contact with customers who have tickets issued at the incorrect award amounts. Customers will be given the choice to redeem at the correct mileage amount or re-deposit their award with all fees waived. We regret any inconvenience this has caused you, and appreciate your understanding.
Director, Customer Insights
(a different outcome than their statement to the Wall Street Journal that the airline always honors fare errors)
There is a fine line to be drawn between a plausible fare sale and an outright, clear, and unequivocal error. Finding that midpoint can be arbitrary and extremely controversial, pushing me to argue in the past that an airline should honor all fare mistakes, period. But I just do not feel comfortable arguing that United must honor a normally 160,000-mile ticket sold for four miles.
I was quite tempted to jump onboard this deal—I even considered flying to China yesterday, just for the fun of it. But I ultimately held back, opting neither to book it for myself or blog about it. Unlike the currency conversion error that led to some great premium-class deals out of Burma, this one really felt like…stealing.
But I am not going to go so far as to call those who took advantage of this offer thieves. Many do—and I think Rapid Travel Chai, for example, offers a compelling argument why it is shameful to take advantage of deals like this—but emotions aside, United offered a round-trip fare for eight miles in first class to China and thousands of people decided that it was a bargain worth taking. (What a surprise!)
For all the nitty-gritty legal arguments that there was no mutual assent to the offer or no “meeting of the minds,” united.com serves as United’s agent and it does not strike me as all that compelling to legally excuse UA’s careless error.
So we are left with an ethical quandary in this case. My reading of the new DOT guidelines on mistake fares seem clear to me—I agree with Lucky that under the letter of the law, UA is on the hook to honor these fares.
But forcing UA to honor these fares violates the spirit of the law and ultimately I believe rules should serve as guidelines rather than steadfast dictates. If I were a DOT officer and this case was placed on my desk, I would not be inclined to fine United into compliance. This does not mean the rule loses its luster—it simply means that this first draft of the rule requires some clarification.
Finding a proper balance will not be easy. I believe there does need to be a high level of consumer protection when it comes to voiding purchased airline tickets, but in cases like this I think a strict reading of the law goes too far and hurts the very people intends to help: UA could respond to this “hit” by imposing fuel surcharges on award redemptions.
I envision some sort of 24-hour rule that applies to both airlines and consumers. A strict multilateral 24-hour cancellation penalty is not palatable—especially when people are purchasing last minute revenue tickets—but a compromise in which an airline could cancel under only very limited circumstances (taking into consideration time period and fare paid versus average/historical fare) may be a solution.
Ultimately, if the customer pushed hard enough (and many are talking about suing already) I would honor this fare if I were United. but I would also close out that person’s MileagePlus account. For people to claim to be “valuable” to United but kick them while they are down in this situation signals to me that United does not need them as customers.
There is no doubt I have blood on my hands—I did take advantage and ultimately flew on the Swiss Air $0 business class fare to Delhi in 2009, but my opinion is changing. I must concede my attitude here may be clouded by the fact that United has done so much for me over the years. Despite the rocky merger since March, United continues to be my preferred airline for a plethora of reasons, including for its mileage program, route network, and price. So it really could be that I simply don’t want to kick a friend while he is down, but it does make me think differently about airline mistake fares in general.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so fast to hop on the bandwagon next time…how would you feel if you meant to sell something for $160,000 but let it go for $4? Not quite the same, I know, but in this case was there ever even a modicum of possibility that this was just a sale? Certainly not.