First Class to Hong Kong for 4 Miles and Why I Didnt Alert My Readers

This is going to read a little bit like a confession.  Firstly, I have never flown in a 747.  Secondly, I have flown business class on a two class international service, and first class domestic which is little more than a wider leather seat - but never international first.  For most of my readers, they wouldn't really mind business or first, both are lie flat beds, but for me there is a big difference between the two.  See the image above, those are two seats, the Sherpa and the Sherpstress on a 747, in Global First.  But I didn't post about it online and I feel like I should tell you why.

The deal went something like this: United was issuing tickets for 4 Mileage Plus miles plus the taxes (between $30-40) from the US to China.  Then it was narrowed to Hong Kong.

I happen to be in Hong Kong right now, looking at the harbor while I type this and I love it here, so it seemed like something I should try for myself.

I put in some arbitrary dates in the future from Chicago, a place in the states we can always get to quickly and easily.  Here is the final price I was issued for the two of us in Global First:

This appears to be an error on United's system.  This also is an odd situation because it clearly states what the award should have cost and then the total price is just 8 miles and $71.  Airlines sometimes have fare sales, and reduced mileage awards (maybe 25-35% off) but this not that.

So then I was faced with a couple of dilemmas.  Most of my readers, are not heavily traveled road warriors that will likely ever accumulate 640,000 miles to have this kind of a once in a lifetime experience, so maybe this is something I should post about so my readers can take advantage of this limited time offer.  But on the other hand, these tickets are not likely to stand, it seems like something United will be able to get out of and the window was only open about an hour and a half from the time that I knew of it, so by the time I got a post up for my readers they would have very little time to respond.

My website is called "The Trip Sherpa" because I am trying to be a novice's guide into the world of traveling like a pro, and I was worried that this might have gotten people's hopes up for an unlikely trip.  But that didn't stop me from booking myself, the Sherpstress and a few family members tickets.  There are some holier than thous out there making ethical claims against these booking which I will address in a moment, but first I want to show why I believe these may be honored and why they may not.

A Case for United Honoring

There is a new Department of Transportation (DOT) regulation that looks a little like this:

It is an unfair and deceptive practice within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. 41712 for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, or of a tour (i.e., a combination of air transportation and ground or cruise accommodations), or tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that includes scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation, tour or tour component to a consumer, including but not limited to an increase in the price of the seat, an increase in the price for the carriage of passenger baggage, or an increase in an applicable fuel surcharge, after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of an increase in a government-imposed tax or fee. A purchase is deemed to have occurred when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer.

Based on that, I see the "Final Price" of 8 miles and $71 as being a little mixed.  The fact that it so clearly says, "Final Price" makes it pretty clear that this is what you owe. What's more, even after United came out and stated they would not honor (more on that in a moment), this is the price that still (RIGHT NOW!) shows up in my account:

Even after the debacle it shows now that the award price is only 4 miles and $38!  This makes the case even stronger that anything more than this would be an increase in the fare price.  Here is the rest of the DOT rule:

A purchase occurs when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer. Therefore, if a consumer purchases a fare and that consumer receives confirmation (such as a confirmation email and/or the purchase appears on their credit card statement or online account summary) of their purchase, then the seller of air transportation cannot increase the price of that air transportation to that consumer, even when the fare is a “mistake.”

Eeek!  If I was United, I would be pretty worried, because that language seems pretty clear, even in the case of a mistake they cannot increase the final price paid once you have received the email confirmation.

Additionally, some smart and incredibly flexible travelers already started and completed one leg of their journeys for the 4 miles and taxes only.  That means that they are honoring the fare for some already which makes it really hard to not honor it for everyone.

They also have not yet cancelled the tickets but rather suggested that those who booked should cancel their tickets.  I am not voluntarily cancelling my ticket, especially when as it sits they are being honored (for those currently en route, arrived or soon departing).  UAL's informal statement also said they will be notifying by email to bookers which they have yet to do, meaning I think think they were trying to scare people into cancelling while they find out how many people are really going to hold them to the letter of the law.

 A Case Against

Firstly there is this statement from United on the frequent flyer forums:

Hi Everyone, over the weekend, we discovered a united.com programming error that allowed customers to obtain Mileage Plus travel awards to and from Hong Kong for as little as four miles roundtrip per person, substantially below published levels, which we disclose to customers. We have since corrected the error and will be in contact with customers who have tickets issued at the incorrect award amounts. Customers will be given the choice to redeem at the correct mileage amount or re-deposit their award with all fees waived. We regret any inconvenience this has caused you, and appreciate your understanding.

Shannon Kelly Director, Customer Insights United Airlines

So obviously United is leaning on the fact that they clearly showed how many miles should have been deducted, they disclosed it to the customers then and the glitch is what prevented the accurate price from being taken, but they had accurately showed it so it wasn't a true violation of the DOT regulation.  With this they have a point.

For those with the correct amount of mileage in their account (160,00 per leg, per person) though they saw this price, the actual amount was deducted from their account.  This strengthens UAL's argument that it was an error in display only, and that even their internal systems still knew the correct amount to deduct and behaved correctly. Additionally, the 4 miles were never deducted from those that did not have the correct miles in their account, so was the total payment ever technically deducted?  I would have to say not.

What about the Ethics of 4 mile ticket?

In most cases I am an airline apologist explaining why bag fees are justified, the slim margins in the business and how generous some of their frequent flyer programs can be.  So pouncing on these tickets seems like "kicking a friend" while they are down.  But then again, I have also seen airlines do the same to me, taking advantage because they could.

When my sister-in-law showed up inside of one hour before her international flight (daylight savings time in one country and not the other forced the departure time up unexpectedly), they did not hesitate to take a 50% fare increase on my credit card right then and there for space they had more than available.  A friend that works for that airline apologized adamantly and made it clear that with a key stroke he could have done the same as a courtesy - especially to a customer who has been as loyal as I have over the years.

There was also an opportunity for United to go a little further.  I mean really, who here is relieved that United is NOT going to charge a fee to return the money they don't want to except for a flight they don't want you to fly.  That's not really a concession, especially since they are in a very questionable position.  That's pretty weak generally.

Some have suggested that United (who could be legally on the hook for these tickets) could place some conditions like, no changes which many people who booked a bunch without looking at their schedule may cancel instantly.  They could also offer me a downgrade to economy and I will gladly settle for that.  Maybe even just a mile deposit is a better bet than trying to get them to honor these tickets, so offer me that and I may turn mine in too.

But they haven't done ANY of that.  It flies in the face of their statement that they will honor any mistake fares, no matter how big the mistake turns out to be.

In my opinion, United was caught with their pants down, and have offered no reconciliation for passengers that booked, but do they owe us anything?  Not really, but the law is the law so I have a hard time reaching a conclusion as to how I feel about the matter.  I can say that when they look guilty of a violation and have offered nothing to consumers who booked, it makes me want to hold them to it.   The only thing that really comes through for me is that I hope they are honored, because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Final assessment:

According to a statement by the DOT, these fares do qualify for the regulation mentioned above so UAL may be on the hook.  In the end it will be wait and see.

Posted on July 18, 2012 and filed under Uncategorized.