I generally silence my iPhone at night and woke up this morning to a flood of tweets, text messages, e-mails and Flyertalk PMs about a “DKK” fare sale from United Airlines. My first thought was “where the heck is DKK?”, but it turns out that signified a currency rather than airport code as flights originating out of the United Kingdom and some other points in Europe priced in Danish Krone were returning a very cheap price. Many booked transatlantic first class fares for under $100 r/t and the deal lasted for several hours. Now United has said it will not honor the fares.
United a Victim of Pricing Conversion Error
In the world of social media it only takes one person to start a fire and in the wee hours of the morning in the USA, someone found out that booking flights on United originating in the United Kingdom on UA’s Danish website led to some very cheap fares — fares so cheap that some were able to construct routings that criss-crossed the world several times in first class for under $300. Most just booked transatlantic tickets between from Great Britain to the USA, where even Hawaii was available for less than $200 in first class round-trip. Some people reported booking more than 100 tickets.
Around 9:30a ET, United caught wind of the issue and immediately made Denmark disappear…well at least United’s Danish site. The deal was dead and though ITA showed even better deals on other carriers, none were bookable (How do I know? I spent the whole morning on it…).
kr624 = $94.83
A United spokesman acknowledged the error and promised United would have news on how it would handle the mistake later in the day or tomorrow.
It appears, like the RGN deal, ATPCO may be to blame again — the problem was not due to a United filing error, but due to a currency conversation error. Blame the Europeans for using periods instead of commas! (that was a joke) Imagine something like this: 2,000 Kroner (two in Europe) became 2.000 Kroner (two thousand in Europe) and thus a $14,000 airfare became $14 plus tax. The precise math is not clear yet, but it was something like this.
Consumers the Victim of an Emboldened United
United announced late this afternoon that it would not honor the fares and has already cancelled most tickets.
Clearly, United’s legal team went to great lengths to carefully form every word of this statement. It is interesting to me that United says it will void “bookings” (not tickets) of individuals who were “attempting” to take advantage of an “error”. A third-party software provider is blamed, meaning UA is already laying a defense for impleading this company should this matter face extensive litigation or should the U.S. Department of Transportation take the side of consumers. But note that in saying “bookings” instead of “tickets” and “attempting to take advantage” instead of “took advantage” the carrier is leaving itself open to at least the prospect of honoring ticketed reservations.
Some will no doubt seek redress with the U.S. Department of Transportation and United has made no distinction in cancelling reservations — both ticketed and unticketed — thus far.
United cancelled the “4 mile sale” with the DOT’s blessing and will argue here that consumers manipulated the website to achieve a price they knew was too good to be true. Those that fraudulently inputted Danish billing addresses may find themselves in a poor legal position should they try to litigate United’s unilateral cancellation of their booking.
United Should Honor All Mistake Fares
Back in 2010 I wrote a story about mistake fares and quoted that included the following–
United Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co., JetBlue AirwaysCorp. and Singapore Airlines all say their policy is to not cancel tickets even when a mistake is discovered, no matter how large the error.
“That is the right thing to do,” says United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. In 2007, United honored a business-class fare from Los Angeles or San Francisco to destinations in New Zealand that was missing one zero: it was sold as $1,062 plus taxes and fees instead of $10,620 plus taxes and fees.
What a difference a five years makes! Having taken advantage of the great “sale” fares of the last decade and focused a whole term on researching this issue in law school, I take great interest in how these events will unfold.
As a Million Miler flyer on United, I also take an interest in how my airline handles its own mistakes, whether they be directly made by United or through a contractor, here the “third-party software provider”.
Admittedly, the fact that United acted within 24 hours makes this a more difficult issue for me, but the only way United will learn to carefully guard itself and its contractors is when it takes responsibility for its mistakes. Yes, a consumer assuredly knew when booking today’s fare that it was far below even the ~$1,500 fare sales we have seen lately, but if the prohibition against post-purchase price increases is not enforced, what is to stop United from unilaterally cancelling other tickets it deems a mistake, such as in an instance in which it just might think it can sell the ticket for more to someone else?
More legal analysis in a future post, but it merits mentioning that the DOT is considering weakening its rule prohibiting post-purchase price increases precisely due to scenarios like the events of today.
Had I been awake when this deal would have been full-swing, would I have taken advantage? No, I do not think I would have purchased any tickets, for I am too scared of retaliation from United — remember they shut down MileagePlus accounts of those who who used a two-browser trick to book free award travel and I am banking on Star Gold for the next 60 years. But would I have booked tickets for my family, wife’s family, and friends? Oh yeah.
I gave up fighting the RGN fare mistake (and eventually the Canadian Transportation Agency sided with Swiss anyway) and I would not have had the time to get involved in this controversy either, but I will be following with interest those who decide to fight United over their “right” to a $50 transatlantic first class ticket.
>Read More: Bad News For Us: A Discussion on Airline Mistake Fares
>Read More: United Airlines’ 4-Mile First Class Fares: The Spirit Versus the Letter of the Law
>Read More: United Waited Too Long to Cancel the 4-Mile Hong Kong Award Tickets