It was an airfare deal too good to be true: fly first class to Hong Kong for just 4 frequent flier miles and $33 in taxes. Clearly, it was a computer glitch.
But it's also turning out to be the first major test of the DOT's new consumer protection rules prohibiting airlines from increasing the price after the consumer completes a purchase.
On Sunday, United Airlines loaded in some first class fares into the system wrong and let passengers book flights to Hong Kong -- or other places in Asia connecting in Hong Kong -- in exchange for 4 frequent flier miles, plus government taxes.
A business class seat for a flight on United to Hong Kong usually goes for about $8,500 or 120,000 frequent flier miles. First class can cost $10,250 or 140,000 miles.
United eventually pulled the plug and announced it wasn't honoring tickets already sold.
United advised that the people that purchased these tickets could get a refund without paying a penalty or have the proper amount of miles deducted. Anyone who had already started their trip would be allowed to complete their travel.
Several people who booked tickets complained to the DOT that United was not honoring the price and they are now investigating.
The cost advertised was actually correct. A ticket searcher initially saw a cost of 120,000 miles. It was only when customers went to book, that the 4 mile figure appeared. And if customers had the full 120,000 miles in their accounts, that was actually deducted. Those with less had no miles deducted. All passengers were charged the appropriate taxes.
The maximum penalty per violation is $27,500, but the government has discretion in what amount to fine. DOT says each ticket sold by United could be considered a separate violation, if United refuses to honor the ticket price.
We can see both sides of this argument. However, we are siding with the passengers. Think about it, if you book a ticket incorrectly and accidentally book the wrong date; when you call the airlines to say you made an honest mistake, they don't take that into consideration and immediately charge you up to $400 in international change fee penalties. Plus, you get the added joy of shelling out more money for the difference in cost between the old and new ticket.
Obviously, the customers purchasing this airfare knew that the price of $33 for a first class airfare was wrong, but on the same token we have never seen an airline not honor a mistake airfare. We constantly find mistake airfares each year and advertise them knowing that these fares are one heck of a deal. Sometimes it is human error, sometimes it is a computer glitch that leaves out the taxes; or instead of a $100 fare, one of the zero's is left of making the fare $10, it happens more than you think.
We hope the DOT makes United honor the fares and pay for their mistake; like the airlines do to us when we have made a simple mistake on our end. You should sign up for our twitter alerts and facebook page, so that when we do find these fares you will be one of the first to know and you can get in on them too.
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