This afternoon I posted about United pricing awards to/from Hong Kong at four miles roundtrip. The deal is dead in the meantime, and obviously everyone is wondering what’s going to happen, so I figured I’d share some thoughts. I’m not a lawyer, so take what I wrote with a grain of salt.
First, I’d suggest being patient and not calling the airline. Why? Because there’s nothing anyone at United can definitively tell you at this point, and there’s no need to bring further attention to this pricing. This happened on a Sunday afternoon, and I suspect thousands of tickets were issued under this pricing. It’s going to take more than a mid-level manager to decide how to handle this situation, and I can’t imagine we’ll know more before tomorrow afternoon.
A lot of people are concerned about getting a refund. Keep in mind United has a free 24 hour cancellation policy, and if they end up not honoring this they’ll most definitely let you cancel after that, since they can’t force you to pay a higher price. So if you’re worried about a refund, don’t be. Period.
Apparently those that had enough miles in their account for what the “standard” price was supposed to be had that number of miles deducted. Be patient and don’t be worried, even if this happened to you. The e-receipt should clearly state the number of miles deducted (four), so they can’t force you to pay the higher price, even beyond the 24 hour cancellation policy they have. So even if they deducted a million miles from your account, just be patient.
What’s interesting about this deal is that if your ticket was issued it’s “valid” as far as the airlines are concerned (for the time being). A reader reported booking a Lufthansa flight departing today under this pricing, and is currently at the airport about to board his flight. At the end of the day when an e-ticket is issued with a ticket number it’s as “real” as it gets. So for those that say there’s a zero percent chance of this being honored, obviously that’s not the case for those that booked a flight departing in a matter of hours. So at least someone will win here.
In my previous post I shared a link to the Department of Transportation regulations, which in part read as follows (bolding mine):
Section 399.88(a) states that it is an unfair and deceptive practice for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, or of a tour or tour component that includes scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation to a consumer after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of a government-imposed tax or fee and only if the passenger is advised of a possible increase before purchasing a ticket. 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.”
A contract of carriage provision that reserves the right to cancel such ticketed purchases or reserves the right to raise the fare cannot legalize the practice described above. The Enforcement Office would consider any contract of carriage provision that attempts to relieve a carrier of the prohibition against post-purchase price increase to be an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 41712.
To me this seems to protect the consumer. The key here is that the Department of Transportation regulations supersede the contract of carriage, and that once a confirmation email is received it has to be honored, even if it’s a “mistake.” They way I interpret the above doesn’t seem to suggest they can just unilaterally cancel the ticket, though I suspect this is what some lawyers will be figuring out over the coming days.
Gary disagrees with me (and is a much brighter guy than I’ll ever be):
I disagree, at least it is not obvious to me that an airline saying that the number of miles required for a promotional ‘free’ ticket counts as raising the ‘price’ of that ticket at least as far as DOT regulations are concerned. But then I am not a transportation lawyer.
And that’s why we all need to be patient. I suspect United’s transportation lawyers will be busy tomorrow, and in the meantime all we can do is wait. I’m sure United would hate honoring these tickets, but I’m not convinced they have an option. So I do have to disagree with those of you that say there’s a zero percent chance of this being honored.
Regardless, get your popcorn out and be patient. I’d argue there’s absolutely no risk in letting this play out, even if the higher number of miles were debited.
Update: Reader Eddie points out the following quote from a Wall Street Journal article:
UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co., JetBlue Airways Corp. and Singapore Airlines C6L.SG all say their policy is to not cancel tickets even when a mistake is discovered, no matter how large the error.