A computer glitch that occurred on United Airlines' booking system has led to some controversy and what's being described as a "test" to a new Department of Transportation (DOT) mandate issued in January.
Last weekend numerous consumers were able to purchase a ticket to Hong Kong for just four frequent flier miles and about $33 in government taxes and fees. Once word got out, people began logging in and booking flights.
Once United became aware of what's being described as a programming error, the airline said it would not be honoring those tickets. The glitch, and subsequent refusal to honor, has sparked a DOT investigation, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Glitch gives travelers a phenomenal deal
Normally, a flight to Hong Kong from distant points will typically cost somewhere in the ballpark of over $1,000, or up to 140,000 reward miles under United's MileagePlus rewards program. For instance, the Tribune quotes a flight from Los Angeles costs about $1,800 or 60,000 reward miles.
Travelers who booked during the time of the glitch was active paid four miles and taxes and fees, totaling $33. However, those who had sufficient miles in their accounts did get the full amount of miles deducted from the rewards program. Individuals not having enough credit in MileagePlus only paid four miles.
This past January, the DOT had enacted a new rule (Section 399.88(a) that prohibits airlines from increasing the price of a ticket after the purchase has been made. This new policy was triggered after airlines attempted to impose new baggage fees on travelers after tickets were booked.
The Wall Street Journal reported the rule states “the seller of the air transportation cannot increase the price of that air transportation to that consumer, even when the fare is a “mistake".’’ This rule applies to both frequent-flier tickets and cash purchases.
Several travelers admitted they figured it was a glitch, but decided to give it a try anyway, report several media agencies.
"United just made a big mistake and needs to honor it," Susan Clarke, a 62-year-old retired teacher from Aiken, S.C. told Associated Press. "That was their mistake, wasn't it?"
Aaron Riggins, a Washington, D.C., resident, shares similar sentiments. Riggins purchased a first-class, round-trip ticket to Hong Kong on Sunday. He feels he's being forced to be more accommodating than airlines typically are when roles are reversed, reported USA Today.
"When you go to change a flight with United or any airline, most of the time there's not a lot of compassion about fee-waiving," Riggins told USA Today.
The flip side of the conflict is that United reportedly clearly advertised the real price and it wasn't until the final payment screen that the glitch occurred and displayed the incorrect amounts.
There are those that feel some consumers took advantage of the situation.
"When a waiter adds up the check wrong in my favor, I let him or her know. When a clerk hands me back too much change, I give it back," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog, told the Associated Press. "These fliers knew that this was a mistake, and they should treat an airline the same way they treat any other entity."
Where it stands
Travelers that have already completed or are in Hong Kong at the time the error was discovered will have their deals honored. United says it will bring all travelers home, however says other consumers who have not yet flown can expect their tickets to be canceled.
United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson says he doesn't feel UA violated any DOT rules because the advertising was not deceptive. "We think we will get a fair outcome with the DOT," he said.
As of now the DOT is investigating the situation and it is unclear as to whether or not United will be forced to honor these cheap tickets. WSJ did note that United had previously honored mistakes.
That is the right thing to do," United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski had said in 2010.
United is reportedly not disclosing how many consumers booked the $33 Hong Kong fares.