Government calls out cheaters who booked United mistake fares

I’ve kept a polite distance from the latest fare-error scandal, even though readers were asking me to get involved. Something smelled wrong about those $50 first-class transatlantic tickets on United Airlines that were briefly available earlier this month.

Then again, maybe it was the character — or should I say the lack of character — of the bloggers who were urging their followers to snatch up the fares, that made me hesitate. Hackers are criminals and the people who help them are their accomplices.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance. Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Looks as if the government agrees with me. Something was wrong — very wrong — with those United fares. And the people who booked them acted in “bad faith” according to the Transportation Department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings. Isn’t that a polite way of saying they’re cheaters?

Let’s take a closer look at this fare dust-up.

On Feb. 11, a currency exchange-rate error in third-party party software supplied to United affected several thousand bookings on United’s Denmark-facing website, according to the airline.

The mistake temporarily caused flights originating in the United Kingdom and denominated in Danish Kroners to be presented at only a fraction of their intended prices.

News of these obviously wrong fares spread like wildfire online. Bloggers boasted about buying multiple tickets, hoping that when the mistake was discovered, they’d use the DOT to bully United into honor the fares. The law was on their side, they argued, citing prohibitions on post-purchase price increases.

Except that it wasn’t.

United, as you would expect, promptly voided the fares and reversed all associated charges. The loyalty/hacker blogosphere erupted in anger. The DOT agreed to investigate.

Late yesterday, the government released its results. It will not take action against United for failing to honor the tickets.

Turns out the mistaken fares appeared on a website that wasn’t marketed to consumers in the United States. In order to book a ticket, you had to visit United’s Denmark website which had fares listed in Danish Krone throughout the purchasing process.

And that’s not all. Only customers who identified “Denmark” as their country — in other words, where billing statements are received when entering billing information at the completion of the purchase process — were able to complete their purchase at the mistaken fare levels.

So if you live in the States, you would have to misrepresent your location twice in order to book the bogus fare.

The DOT suggests many customers deliberately hacked the system in order to score tickets.

The Office is concerned that to obtain the fare, some purchasers had to manipulate the search process on the website in order to force the conversion error to Danish Krone by misrepresenting their billing address country as Denmark when, in fact, Denmark was not their billing address country.

This evidence of bad faith by the large majority of purchasers contributed to the Enforcement Office’s decision.

I’ve come to similar conclusions with past airfare mistakes, including high-profile screw-ups with Korean Air and Expedia. Once all the facts are in, you realize that most of the customers screaming for an airline to honor a mistake fare are, in fact, acting in bad faith, as the DOT might put it.

We live in a world where many consumers believe that the unethical behavior of a company justifies their own unethical behavior. It doesn’t.

Should United have honored its Denmark fares?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

64 thoughts on “Government calls out cheaters who booked United mistake fares

  1. This is unambiguous. The law has never required a clear mistake to be honored (and I think we can all agree that these $50 fares were a clear mistake.) And unlike the Korean Air fiasco, the mistaken tickets were revoked promptly, so nobody was left hanging a short time before departure after seeing the tickets not rescinded for months.

    And yes, if you told the website you lived in Denmark, than that’s another reason United shouldn’t feel the least bit bad about revoking the tickets.

    1. Quite Concur. Whatever United’s sins, misrepresenting yourself to use a software error like this is cheating and deserves to be rebuffed.

  2. As in all cases, “it depends on the facts and circumstances” seems a good answer, and this case seems pretty straightforward. Now, had I been a Danish national who booked a ticket on that date at that price from the UK to the US on United I would answer differently, but that’s a whole different set of facts and circumstances.

      1. Absolutely. I recently booked a promotional fare on JetBlue that will get me roundtrip BOS-CLE for just under $30. Last October I flew a Swiss flight roundtrip MAD-VIE for about 22 Euros. It doesn’t happen all the time of course, but it does happen.

        1. Best I can figure, BOS-CLE is a 2 hour flight. They were talkig Transatlantic fares for $50. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

          1. You’re right. It does sound too good to be true, but if you’re not lying, cheating, or gaming the system and found a $50 transatlantic first class fare to any destination even remotely attractive directly on the airline’s website, you wouldn’t book it? I sure would. Reductio ad absurdum most certainly, but still!

          2. Yes, book it, but don’t get upset if it gets retracted. But when you are buying outside of the US as these people in the US were doing, they were gaming the system, so glad they aren’t getting that fare!

      1. In 25 years of flying for work, I can count on one hand the number of times I have had a United flight without a delay, cancellation, or other incident (and that also includes Continental). Not to mention that the ground staff were exceptionally rude.

        1. Just flew AA for the 7th time. 5th time with them that they screwed up. It happens with all of them, but I usually fly UA and only have had 2 issues with them in all these years.

          1. Try flying through ORD. That seems to be where 99% of my UA problems occur. My last trip, on both directions it would have been quicker and cheaper for me to drive to my destination. Pretty sad when you were wishing you had booked through Hertz instead.

  3. $50? Really? What kind of person would complain that they tried to scam a ticket and got caught, and now wants to appeal. Go quietly slither back into your burrow.

    These scammers lied, got caught, and now attack the airline that called them out. Who do they think they are, Bill O’Reilly?

  4. This is one of the few areas where Chris and I disagree on regularly. In general, I think mistake fares should be honored and in this case, they should be honored for anyone with a verified address in Denmark. Unfortunately, that isn’t the majority of people in this case who had to materially misrepresent who they were and where they were from in order to book this fare.

    If you have to “game” the system in order to book the fare, no you should not reap the benefits of your deceit. If an airline mis-loads a fare into their system and you can book it without any deceit or gamesmanship, they should have to honor the fare. I don’t get to change the booking after I hit “go” and neither should they.

    1. I think there is a definite question about the people who really live in Denmark for sure. But I think it should be answered by Danish law. Here, case law says when an “offer” is clearly a mistake (and an advertised price is an offer to treat), the “offeror” can pull the offer. Generally one cannot pull an offer… it is good until accepted or rejected and there are tons of cases out there discussing when an offer has been accepted, when it has been rejected, when it’s even a valid offer, etc. And US case law says mistakes like this generally won’t be considered valid offers. But what does Danish law say? That should control for those who are truly Danish, and who actually have billing addresses in Denmark.

    2. But I also do agree with your sentiment (about honoring the fare for those who don’t have the game the system). I have more sympathy for non-airline businesses. Like the car dealer whose ad gets run by the newspaper… a $50,000 used BMW for $5,000. That is CLEARLY an error (assuming it’s something like a 2013 7 series BMW, etc… where 5k would never be reasonable… and we are talking a normal dealership… not a shady one). But what is the ad says $25,000? Is that clearly a mistake? Some would say yes. Some would say no. But I have more sympathy for that person. Airlines, though? No sympathy for them. They are basically in business to screw people over, IMO. So I am more on your side on that one.

      1. @mythsayer:disqus I guess here’s what I don’t like… using your example…
        The car dealer has multiple “men” in the loop before the end of the sale to make sure that the “accident / wrong” price does get through. Even if the price was wrong, you don’t show up at the dealership drive off in the car and two days later they come back and pull the “whoops” we sold you the car for the wrong amount. Pay us the right amount or return the car. Once you’ve made your payment, the car is yours even if it was a mistake.
        Back when you had to help wind up the prop before takeoff, the airlines also had someone in the loop during the buying process. If something just didn’t look right, they could stop the transaction, before taking your money, to check to make sure the fare was right. The airlines opted to remove that safeguard in the cost reductions, which I’m ok with, but then passed that burden of knowing what’s right or not on to me. I’m not ok with that. I’m also really not ok with them accepting consideration and at a later date changing the terms of the purchase when I can’t.

        1. Yeah, I know what you’re saying. But the underlying theory remains the same under contract law. In one case, we decide upfront that the offer isn’t a real offer. In the other case, we decide that the offer wasn’t a real offer and even though you were able to “accept” it, since there was never a meeting of the minds as to the real price, the agreement is voidable. There is case law on this too… when does an incorrect offer become valid? The answer isn’t as simple as “once it is accepted.” In the airline scenario, that occurs when I book and pay for the ticket. But I can’t always make an invalid offer a valid one just by “accepting” it. That’s the argument behind forcing airlines to honor these tickets. But that’s not how contract law works. And again, there are nuances. I think the Korean Air debacle was a lot closer of a call. That price had the ring of a really good deal. This is way beyond a “good deal.” Even people in Denmark had to know something was wrong.

        2. I once tried to buy a car advertised in the paper at a good price. The picture in the ad showed a 4 door, but the car the dealer brought out was a 2 door. When I pointed out the discrepancy, they claimed the newspaper had mixed up the pictures, and I could buy the 2 door for that price or leave it, but they would not honor that price for the 4 door. I suppose I could have sued them or reported them to the attorney general or something for what good that would do, but they would not honor the mistake. So your analogy doesn’t really hold up. (I would have loved to have gotten one of those cheap fares, but I can understand why United wouldn’t honor them and why the govt. didn’t force them to…)

          1. Actually it does… The business caught the mistake before you paid them and closed the deal.

            In the airline world, you would have paid for the 4 door, driven it home and they would have shown up the next day telling you that you needed to give them the car back, take the 2 door or pay twice as much.

            I’d prefer what happened to you than what happens in the airline world.

        3. I’ve had car dealers try that with very unsophisticated buyers – they ‘mistakenly’ sold you the car for $2000 under sticker – which they never ‘intended to do,’ claiming they are going to take the car back if the person does not give them an extra $500 which they’ll take in 10 $50 monthly installments –

  5. I seriously doubt that any airline or for that matter any segment of the travel industry will honor computer errors in the future. But, if the bloggers would keep their big mouths shut and just book for themselves, they would probably never get caught. It is the rapid influx of reservations that sets off an alarm.

    1. Unfortunately it wasn’t the bloggers who set this off. Thank news organizations like Business Insider for fanning the flames on this. Once it started showing up in google news of course a blogger is going to write about it.

    1. on the part of the airline? or the part of the bloggers? Bloggers? Maybe… conspiracy to commit fraud? That’s a civil wrong although internet could make a federal crime, if they could cram the scenario into an actual federal crime.

      on the part of the airline? Probably not. This is a civil issue. The only question really is: “should the tickets be honored?”

          1. I can sit in front of my computer and buy and sell any currency in the world. There is no law that says you have to use a specific currency. Hell, go to a bar in Heathrow & they will accept about 10 different currencies.

          2. With airline tickets, the POS determines your fare. The internet has become a challenge for the carriers and people like you harm those who do things the right way.

          3. The POS does not determine your fare. The airline tells the POS how much to charge me and in what currency. The POS verifies my credit card information and approves or declines. Transaction complete. Lets put it this way. If you owned a store and after decades of accepting credit cards still could not figure out how to charge customers the correct amount, who is at fault when you lose money? Time to look in the mirror.

          4. POS stands for point of sale. You are on the Danish website for UA and the fare there could be more or less than on the US UA website. POS is for the country in our industry. What your credit card address doesn’t matter, it is the country site that does.
            Your argument are that of a 5 year old, not an adult.
            The carriers are working on changes all the time. Hackers keep them busy.

  6. Cheating? That is a little harsh. I was one of the buyers of these tickets. Am I mad? No. Do I consider myself dishonest? No. Perhaps Christopher isn’t a member of the global economy & doesn’t realize that its perfectly acceptable to buy goods & services from a foreign site. When going to Brazil I have purchased tickets on Azul’s Brazilian site instead of their English site which provides poor currency conversion & more basic information. Does that make me a cheater? Do I always have to use the American site for every single thing because I’m American? No.

    I didn’t enter Denmark as my country, I simply used the Denmark United site. When I put in my billing info I didn’t use some fake Denmark address, I used my American state & American zip code, and guess what? My card wasn’t declined! And guess what too? United obviously doesn’t care because they even provided me a spot to put in my zip code & state. In fact you can buy a plane ticket with cash without ever telling the airline where the hell you live. You don’t even need an ID!

    Obviously when its an obvious mistake you can’t get upset when the fare isn’t honored but on the same token its unfair to say anyone who purchased a ticket is a liar, cheater, etc. I can’t tell you how many times United has screwed me over despite my loyalty to them. Its not exactly like we are stealing out of the collection plate here.

    1. your point is well taken–united makes any mistake and they can take it back. consumer buys ticket and realizes more than 24 hours later that the date was wrong, wrong name entered, or basically anything and they are SOL.

      1. Beyond that, how many other mistakes has United & other airlines forced upon the consumer? Last Monday night I was stuck in Chicago overnight because they couldn’t find a pilot & a crew for a flight that I paid quite a bit of money for, as did the other 100+ passengers. No refund or monetary compensation. They essentially made the consumer pay for their mistake.

          1. It makes me a smart consumer. The people who know the least always pay the most. If I go into a furniture or mattress store & haggle down the price, does that make me a cheater simply because someone walked in & paid full retail price?

          2. If you walk into a store and tell them you’re from FL, when you aren’t because it qualifies you for a deal you heard about on the internet… that doesn’t make you a smart consumer. What you did had nothing to do with haggling and everything to do with misrepresenting who you were and where you were from.

          3. Like with cruises. Get a state discount and when you present your ID and you aren’t from the state noted in the reservation, you get caught!

          4. I dont blame him at all. It is the responsbility of these large multinational companies to get it right–and when they dont, there should be some consequence. If i go into a flea mart and buy a watch that i know to be worth 35k for $5 becuase they made a mistake in pricing, do i have to give it back? In any case, we all have our judgments here and you are right to have yours–and clearly Chris and the DOT agreed. However, if the passenger makes a mistake in good or bad faith, i can assure you that united (or basically any other airline) will not just take care of it because it was an honest mistake.

          5. I’m really sorry to do this, but you’ve received repeated warnings about your comments and you’ve been reminded of our policy on numerous occasions. This comment has been flagged and our moderators have determined that if violates our comments policy. Your comments will not be published for the next 30 days.

          6. The point is the clear power assymetry that exists in these relationships. As an extremely frequent flier, I have witnessed many airlines in my two alliances (skyteam/star alliance) have counltess messups that are almost comical at times. And these will cost me time, money, and energy with rarely any sort of compensation. Now, irrespective of how you feel about this case, if the passenger had made any sort of mistake in buying the product, there would surely be no “going back” because it was an “honest mistake” related to computer issues, etc.

          7. bodega, I never claimed I made a mistake or didn’t know what I was doing. To call me a fraud or a cheater though is incorrect. I could go to any of United’s “foreign” sites right now & buy a ticket and they would care less. You are essentially choosing the currency you want to be billed in. This isn’t a discount because of where I live. Like I said, you don’t even need to give United your address when you buy a ticket. I could walk up to a United counter anywhere in the world and buy a ticket with nothing more than my name, birth date, and gender. This whole Denmark thing is nothing more than a distraction. If this fare were available on the American site you guys would still be calling everyone a cheater.

          8. I never said you were a fraud or a cheater. But you are a gamer. Yes, the discount is based on the country of sale and if you walked up at CPH you would qualify for the fare from there, but being in the US and using the Danish site is gaming the system. The carriers will find a way to fix this, but for now the internet, as per them, isn’t their friend. A least they caught the fare and you could rebook…which isn’t what you really want to do, right?

          9. So what about the people who were in CPH. Do you think it was right for United to cancel their tickets too? It certainly happened. Are they gamers? Airlines have been selling tickets online for nearly 20 years now. I think by now they should have it figured out. Like I said, I don’t really care that they canceled the fare. I just take offense at the notion that I did anything immoral in booking the ticket.

          10. It was a mistake, so yes. You gamed the system and you know what you are doing is questionable. Fares are POS based and by playing around, you know this.

    2. how many times has United tried to lie to me and hundreds of others about reasons for flight delays and cancellations? dozens?

      They are fair game. Every airline lies routinely. However, I can prove it easily in the case of United.

      Was a mistake made here? Yep – but whose mistake was it? United could have easily recouped its loss from the 3rd party entity – instead they blame their customers.

      I can prove beyond any doubt that on at least two occasions where I was a passenger, United took an airplane scheduled for my flight at a hub, and used it ion a different flight, thereby transferring the delay to my flight because it was headed west instead of east, where they’d lose an hour and delay the departure in the morning.

      Is that gaming the system? Is it ethical? Who cares- they do it- but to blame weather for a delay which they caused to avoid compensating people is utterly unethical.

  7. I voted no. No brainer. In this era of the Internet, the boundary is a bit murky, but the US laws and DOT does not have to provide protection when transaction was intended and made outside the US because, well, they are US things.

  8. hmmm. . . gaming the system? Really?

    If I want to go from Los Angeles to Boston at noon, and I tell the system I want to leave on the red eye to get a lower fare, is that gaming the system?

    There are three airlines we fly. On all three of them, if you tell the airline you want to travel at 10p and really want to leave at noon – you will get a fare that is anywhere from $20-50 LESS to travel at noon rather than your ‘preferred time.’ Is that ‘gaming the system?

    What about this example . . .
    I’m flying from Los Angeles to Maui. I buy a one way ticket from LA-HNL,which gives me a stop in Maui and simply get off in Maui. Save me $50 over the nonstop flight to Maui -who is gaming the system there?

    Another – American Airlines vacation site – if you select a vacation on Maui – you will get the nonstop flight from LAX-Honoiulu with a three hour connection in HNL to Maui – whereas, if you select a vacation on Oahu, you get a nonstop flight to Maui with a 3-5 hour connection on Maui. But you can get the non-stop flight to your actual destination for hundreds more. That does not happen on its own – the airline is trying to generate additional profit for the non-stop flight it could easily provide.

    now, lets say I want to spend a week in London . . . .I’ll use American Airlines vacation site which will sell me British Airways business class seats for thousands less than British airways own inclusive tour site will. Is that gaming the system?

    If United Airlines suffered loss here – it was not the ‘fault’ the passenger. United’s loss arose from the third party contractor which it used to create these tickets and currency exchange.

    The moment the airlines are willing to accept that passengers make mistakes and let us fix them free. I’ll cut them the same slack. You can’t tell me it costs an airline $150-200 to change the last name from Farell to Farrell or to add a Jr. or a middle initial to flight record. Once the airline acknowledges that its customers make mistakes, then I’ll let it make mistakes with no consequences. . . . . .

    1. Joe you hit the nail on the head. It would be one thing if the airlines had static prices that rarely deviated. But these guys change prices by the second to try to get more money from its customers. When it blows up in their face they have no one to blame but themselves.

      If they operated fairly then prices would almost always be the same, save for fuel costs. The flight from NYC to LAX has a fixed cost: pilots, staff, wear & tear, and the minimum amount of fuel. They can calculate what it costs to fly an extra 250 lbs and the cost of a free can of coke, ice, & napkin. Add that up, apply a profit margin, and there you go. Of course they don’t do this, they use a system that forces you to pay more. There is a reason they are suing skiplagged. It costs them less to only fly you to one leg, yet 9 times out of 10, they charge you more for 1 flight than 2. These guys are the worse gamers of all.

      If they want to use the market of supply and demand to set prices, certainly we are entitled to also use variables to change ticket prices, including purchasing in foreign currencies.

      1. They change fares a minimum of 3 times a day. If they had set pricing, you would get bored. Look at what happened to JC Penneys when they had one price, no sales. They lost business. So they raised their prices and are back to having sales and people are shopping with them again…but possibly too late to save them.

        1. Correct, prices go up and down, therefore I always try to buy them when they are at the lowest, regardless of how low it goes.

    2. > Save me $50 over the nonstop flight to Maui -who is gaming the system there?

      You didn’t game the system. You just violated the Contract of Carriage, which you supposedly agreed to when you purchased the ticket. Here’s the exact wording from AA:

      American specifically prohibits the practices commonly known as:

      Hidden City/Point Beyond Ticketing: Purchase of a fare from a point before the passenger’s actual origin or to a point beyond the passenger’s actual destination.

  9. The only reason I voted yes was because airlines should reap what they sow. They often force customers to live with their mistakes or pay unreasonable fees to correct them; the airlines should be held to the same standard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: