Imagine you are looking for an award trip to Toronto with your spouse and infant child and are open to routing, travel dates, and enroute stops–you just want the best deal. You have United miles and use united.com to search for a fare, specifying two adults and one lap child.
Note the double asterisk above–
Infant Travel Policy. Additional charges may apply. For award travel, any additional fare for a lap child will not be included in fares that will be displayed in your search results, but will be displayed for review prior to purchase.
You find a decent routing and click through to purchase.
A price for two “awards” displays on the next screen and you reasonably conclude that because the baby is a lap child, he does not need his own award.
You click through and are asked to enter the names of the travelers, including your infant.
You come to the purchase screen where you review the itinerary and note your son is reflected in the reservation.
You click on purchase and you receive a confirmation number, also noting the following (bolding mine)–
Note: All infants traveling internationally are required to have a ticket. Some itineraries can be eTicketed. If your itinerary is not eTicketable, the infant’s paper ticket will be mailed to your billing address before your travel date. There is no additional charge for this ticket. Other passengers will be issued eTickets.
Immediately you receive a confirmation e-mail from United with all three names listed. Soon, you receive a confirmation e-mail from United with ticket numbers for you and your spouse. Your child is not listed on the ticket receipt, but noting the above and the fact that he still shows on the reservation, you do not give it a second thought.
Two months later, you call Singapore Airlines to assign seats on the Singapore flights. You mention the lap child and Singapore indicates there is no record of the child on your ticket.
Puzzled, you call United and they confirm there is no infant ticket, put you on hold, and then come back confirming there was an error in the issuing of the ticket and that you need to pay an extra $1800 for the infant’s ticket (10% of a full-fare ticket). United also mentions it tried calling you twice about the issue, but was unable to reach you.
Should you be responsible for United’s error? Does it matter if you knew United should have charged you in the first place?
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I am of the opinion that United must take responsibility for this error, no matter what the state of mind of the customer was. There’s a thread brewing on Flyertalk in which I borrowed the fact pattern above and it has emerged that the customer, based on previous statements, knew he should have been charged some amount for the infant ticket. Now many are arguing he should have no recourse, with some arguing he should have no recourse even if he had been oblivious to the fact that infant tickets tend to be 10% of a full-fare.
It seems to me this misses the point.
As we saw last week, United Airlines website is prone to error. How will United ever be incentivized to fix the many problems that plague its website if it is absolved from error by the ability to unilaterally cancel tickets or charge customers an extra $1800 for a ticket the website made reasonably clear was already purchased?
The moral argument of whether it was right for someone to buy this ticket when he knew it should have cost more must be separated from the legal argument that a binding contract is formed when a reservation is purchased on united.com and an e-mail confirmation is received.
Consider the alternative–some are putting forth the argument that only ticketed reservations form a contract, but what is to then stop United from delaying the issuance of tickets a couple days (as it sometimes does) to see if it might sell the same seats for more money? A bright-line rule mandating that an airline must honor what it sells on its website, no matter how egregious the error and regardless of the state of mind of the customer, is the only avenue to fully protect consumers while simultaneously encouraging carriers to be diligent in the administration of their websites.
I recognize the flipside to this issue. This is a rather widespread problem affecting most complex international award itineraries on united.com and most of you, if you are so inclined, can log on now and book an itinerary similar to the one above with no additional fee for the infant. Will United’s response just be to remove the ability to book infant tickets online, burdening the majority of customers who can successfully purchase an infant ticket online now for simple tickets?
One would hope that United is working on a fix that will disable the ticketing of a reservation if the website cannot automatically calculate the fee on an infant ticket (I suspect that is the issue above), but until United solves that problem, it might soon become much harder for those booking infant tickets to do so online.
I would encourage anyone to carefully consider the ramifications of taking advantage of a glitch in the system at United’s expense, but I believe United has no leg to stand on in trying to charge the customer above an extra $1800 based on the transaction I reproduced above. Just because United did not deliver the ticket does not mean it did not sell it.