A few days ago, I wrote about the uneasy tension I was experiencing over United Airlines’ 4-mile round-trip deal to China. After taking advantage of nearly every major “mistake” fare over the last several years, I suddenly found myself overcome with guilt and chose not to advantage of this one. While my views remain unchanged on the ethics of booking this particular trip, United’s disappointing response to the customers implicated by this deal has led me to believe that United should honor all fares booked.
United issued an “official” response on Flyertalk and MilePoint the day after the trips were booked, stating:
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
But they never reached out to each customer affected (surely, not everyone reads Flyertalk and MilePoint) and a statement on an IBB is not even sufficient notice for those who did read it and had booked the deal. United followed up with another statement yesterday:
Hi Everyone, I want to provide you with a further update on our Hong Kong award programming error from this past weekend. Specifically here’s how we are proceeding with these reservations:
- For those customers who had sufficient mileage in their account for the correct award amount, the correct amount of miles were deducted at the time of redemption. Any customers who do not intend to use the published number of miles for their ticket may cancel their reservation without paying a fee and we will refund all miles, taxes and fees.
- For those customers who did not have sufficient mileage in their account for the correct award amount, the correct amount of miles could not be deducted at the time of redemption. These tickets have been canceled for non-payment and all taxes and fees have been refunded.
- For those customers who have already begun travel, or are ticketed to begin travel on or before July 21, we will not cancel these tickets and will allow travel to be completed in full. This is intended as an accommodation to those customers whose travel is already underway or the departure date to begin travel is imminent.
We hope you’ll agree this was a unique circumstance. Unlike other widely reported “mistake fares,” the number of miles required for these awards – the correct purchase price – was clearly disclosed to customers throughout the MileagePlus award redemption process and is also available on our MileagePlus travel award chart.
We are in the process of communicating with affected customers at this time. Once again, we appreciate your understanding.
Director, Customer Insights
Too little, too late, I’m afraid.
If United had contacted each customer who purchased one of these “discounted” tickets within 24 hours of purchase, explained that it had been a computer malfunction that caused the error, stated that the correct price had displayed all the way up until the final purchase screen, and finally that the customer would receive a full refund of the taxes paid, United would have been on solid legal footing.
But United, to my knowledge, reached out to no specific customers during within 24 hours of purchase and only a few days later began unilaterally canceling reservations. I am sorry, but that does not cut it in my book.
I think it is quite interesting that United is allowing those who were about to begin or already in the midst of their travels on this mistake fare to complete their trip, suggesting that those who intend to fight this to the end may succeed. To the United loyalists—I would advise caution in fighting this too hard, but for those who never fly United, you now have an invitation to fight this further: if United gave in for some, they will likely give in for others. And you may not have to fight at all, depending on what the DOT concludes.
We’ll get an official response from the U.S. Department of Transportation soon and I have no idea how they will addresss this issue, though if early indications prove accurate, the DOT will side with consumers.
All the ethics aside, United should learn two things from this little storm. First, if you are going to cancel tickets, you need to move swiftly and actually reach out directly to the customers affected. Second, you need to get to the root of what caused that pricing error and make sure it never happens again.
I am willing to give airline some accomodation when clear and unequivocal errors like this one occur. But I am not willing to let airlines sit around and decide how to handle the issue, then try to mop up the mess days later. Speak fast, or forever hold your silence.