United cancels four mile Hong Kong award tickets

On Sunday United had a glitch whereby they were pricing award tickets to/from Hong Kong for four MileagePlus miles, regardless of the cabin, route, or award type.

A full two days later United issued the following statement, which I wrote about here:

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

Then there were another two days of silence, until they issued this statement just now:

Hi Everyone, I want to provide you with a further update on our Hong Kong award programming error from this past weekend. Specifically here’s how we are proceeding with these reservations:

  • For those customers who had sufficient mileage in their account for the correct award amount, the correct amount of miles were deducted at the time of redemption. Any customers who do not intend to use the published number of miles for their ticket may cancel their reservation without paying a fee and we will refund all miles, taxes and fees.
  • For those customers who did not have sufficient mileage in their account for the correct award amount, the correct amount of miles could not be deducted at the time of redemption. These tickets have been canceled for non-payment and all taxes and fees have been refunded.
  • For those customers who have already begun travel, or are ticketed to begin travel on or before July 21, we will not cancel these tickets and will allow travel to be completed in full. This is intended as an accommodation to those customers whose travel is already underway or the departure date to begin travel is imminent.

We hope you’ll agree this was a unique circumstance. Unlike other widely reported “mistake fares,” the number of miles required for these awards – the correct purchase price – was clearly disclosed to customers throughout the MileagePlus award redemption process and is also available on our MileagePlus travel award chart.

We are in the process of communicating with affected customers at this time. Once again, we appreciate your understanding.

Shannon Kelly
Director, Customer Insights
United Airlines

On the plus side they’re honoring the tickets for those that are scheduled to begin travel before July 21, which I think is the right to do, given that it took them four days to issue this response. I think that’s the only positive thing that can be said about United’s handing of the situation. Now it’s four days later and passengers still haven’t been contacted, aside from United posting a “statement” on internet bulletin boards, which hardly counts as “notice.”

I’m not going to beat a dead horse, so I’ll just finish with two thoughts:

  • Why isn’t this covered under the DOT’s rule on price change? I’m not saying it should be, I’m just saying I think it would be really useful for future reference to understand under what circumstances the DOT enforces ticketed award reservations when it comes to their price change rule. They issued a statement saying that award tickets are covered under the DOT rules, so I’m curious why specifically they don’t apply to this situation (again, not saying they should, but rather just asking why they don’t, so we know for future reference).
  • Most mistake fares are the same. I’ve seen a ton of hostile comments on both sides of the argument. There are those that are convinced this should be honored and they’ll sue United if they don’t, and then there are those that think that anyone that took advantage of this is an absolute scum of the earth. Let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that this was a mistake. We all know it was a mistake. And while this may have been a drastic mistake, we also all knew that United’s business class tickets to Australia a few years back were also a fat finger mistake where they left off a zero. My point is simple — we can all selectively be ignorant to what best suits our needs, but when it comes down to it I really don’t see a huge difference between a four mile mistake fare and a $1,400 business class mistake fare. No one that’s being honest with themselves would think either are intentional. But there are plenty of people I know that took advantage of the $1,400 fare, that are now preaching about how immoral taking advantage of a four mile fare is. I don’t buy it. If you’re against all mistake fares and think they’re immoral to take advantage of, I completely respect that.

While I’m speaking only for myself, I think it has been fun. These kinds of deals can lead to endless hours of entertainment if you don’t take them too seriously, and hopefully most of you feel the same way.

Filed Under: Advice, United
  1. When the payment page shows the correct price as well as an obviously wrong price, surely the presumption has to be that the correct price is the operative one. I’m happy to participate in mistake fares and I can’t blame people for trying, but I’m not at all persuaded that this one should stand and I don’t think pushing hard on this one is good long term strategy. We don’t want DOT to write mistakes out of their rules.

  2. Lucky you are a class act.

    Anyone else who thinks they deserve this fare is delusional or intellectually dishonest.

  3. My problem with UA’s action here is that they canceled a ticket after they charged my credit card and emailed me a receipt and confirmation with ticket numbers. As a consumer, we need to know at what point we can be sure that we can rely on a ticket. That’s why everyone should file a DoT complaint to get this answered.

  4. If you parse through the very carefully worded response, that I am sure was well vetted by inside and outside counsel, you can see they canceled the tickets due to non full payment which is one of the terms of the DOT reg. UA has taken the stance that since it showed the correct price throughout the booking process online and, since unlike “regular” mistake fares where the fares between two city pairs are a fluid and ever changing cost, since these fairs have a fixed price in miles published on their website the 4 miles quoted was just a computational error and not the price being offered.

    It would be interesting what would have been the case had the airline had a WN/VX style rewards program…

    Guess its time it cancel my trip.

  5. Eric, Let’s hope the people you hang around with are a little more forgiving and won’t try to take personal advantage of your next mistake.

  6. @ palefire — And again, I’m not “judging” one way or the other, but my point is simply if we’re being honest with OURSELVES, we knew this was a mistake, we knew the $1,500 business class fare to Australia was a mistake, and we knew the $450 business class RGN fare was a mistake, right?

    @ AdamH — And that’s why I’m confused, because I don’t think that’s actually what it says. The DoT says the following is required as “confirmation:”
    “such as a confirmation email and/or the purchase appears on their credit card statement or online account summary”

    It says and/or, so the e-ticket confirmation should be enough, not to mention that the “purchase appears on the credit card statement” since the taxes were charged, right?

  7. Lucky, your voice of reasoned sanity is truly welcome.

    Frankly I’ve found the FT talk disappointing and upsetting. I lot of long-time posters I’ve really respected have written some things I won’t soon forget. A lot of ugliness, IMO, on ALL sides. Very unfortunate 🙁

  8. Your post is one of the more balanced arguments I’ve seen, so kudos for that. I would say that, immoral or not, buying a mistake fare and hoping it’s honored is one thing. Throwing a big fit when it isn’t is something entirely different.

  9. United cancels w/out any word… Stay classy United.

    Btw I agree w end results but the way united went about just reeks united; typical treatment by a faceless corporation. I hope others do file complaints w the DOT and go after them.

  10. @lucky – I understand the “non-payment” slightly differently, in that United is understanding the top part, where it said the correct number of miles, to be the quoted price. The bottom part, which said 4 miles, was just the payment that was actually collected. Imagine if it was a paid ticket and it said $1,500 on top, and on bottom it said “credit card charged $1.50” it’s quite clear that the price quoted was the one on top, and the fact that the full price was not actually paid would be grounds for cancellation due to non-payment, and would obviously not be subject to the DOT mistake fare law. In that case, since the credit card can actually be correctly charged afterward, it would be corrected in that way, which is what happened in cases that there were enough miles in the account, but if not, since the account doesn’t have the necessary number of miles, there is no choice being offered.

  11. lets call a spade a spade. all of us reading your blog are educated enough to know that no ticket ever to asia or anywhere else cost just 4 miles. when booking this award it clearly spelled out the full mileage required for the award. in my case 160,000 miles because i issued a one way first class ticket. but on the bottom only it stated Total Miles : 4. This cost United a fortune, if they loose any more money we’ll be paying it back to them in the form of higher fares later on or higher mileage levels. the airlines are all bleeding, if they go out of business, we’ll be the ones suffering. i will not argue with UA if they contact me and tell me sorry, mate. although I will say this. UA shld offer a gesture of say 5000 miles to every cancelled ticket. many of us wasted 2-3 hours on line on sunday with this thing because of their screw up. make it good, 5000 miles is no big sweat off UA’s accounts.

  12. @ Ckey — Fair enough, but didn’t it say confirmation email and/OR payment? So the confirmation email alone should have been enough based on the fact that it was “OR” and not just “and?”

  13. Wish it wasn’t a busy time at work this month and I could’ve just worked remotely and jumped on the fare departing on this past Monday…

  14. If a cashier gives me an extra $10 change by mistake it’s possible that I might keep the $10. But I would still recognize that I’m doing something morally wrong. And I certainly wouldn’t cry bloody murder and threaten to sue if I have to give the money back.

    Some of you have slipped so deep down the abyss you no longer know which way is up.

  15. There are definitely good points on both sides of this situation. Once I saw screenshots of the full fare displayed followed by 4 Miles, I did not think this would be a winning battle.

    I completely agree with Nathan Fruchter and have stated some of his points to friends. I can only imagine the long term consequences if all of these fares were honored. In the end this might come back to haunt us.

    I decided to give up after a 15 minute award search and was not involved in this in the end. However, I do think United, as a good will gesture should award each person that had a booking something like 5,000-10,000 miles and a free lounge pass.

  16. Sigh… Why do people get up on their high horse saying that anyone thinks they “deserved” the tickets -or anything else for that matter. I haven’t heard anyone say they deserve anything. And every one of us participates in some sort of travel shenanigans – its just a matter of degree (for example, I don’t use Amazon payments, but I don’t judge anyone who does). I threw my hat in the ring, it didn’t work out. Big deal.

  17. There is a HUGE difference between paying $1,500 for a business class seat to SYD/AKL and this mistake. Most of the business class seats to SYD would have been occupied by passengers paying that same $1,500 for coach and then using an upgrade instrument.

  18. All mistake fares are the same?

    Why what a brilliant statement! But why stop there? Why not just say all mistakes are the same. How about all lies are the same! And all sins are the same! And all crimes! And…

  19. It’s posted the number of miles from Asia to USA so it’s an obvious erroneous error. Revenue tickets are different since there’s no set price.

    I think people who are complaining about having tickets canceled are possibly looking to take advantage of the system.

  20. MileagePlus members agree to abide by the terms, conditions, and rules of the program. The published redemption levels are part of those rules.

    “Your participation in the Program will be governed by these provisions, and it is your responsibility to read and understand all of them.

    General conditions

    1. MileagePlus membership and benefits, including the Premier Program, are offered at the discretion of United Airlines and its affiliates, and United has the right to terminate the Program and/or the Premier Program or to change the Program Rules, regulations, benefits, conditions of participation or mileage levels, in whole or in part, at any time, with or without notice, even though changes may affect the value of the mileage or certificates already accumulated.

    1a. United may, among other things, withdraw, limit, modify or cancel any award; increase the mileage, cash required, applicable co-pays or number of certificates required for any award;

    2. Participation in the MileagePlus Program (the “Program”) is subject to any terms and conditions, rules, regulations, policies and procedures (“Program Rules”) that United may, at its discretion, adopt from time to time. United has the sole right to interpret and apply the Program Rules. Any failure to follow Program Rules, any abuse of Program privileges, any conduct detrimental to the interests of United, or any misrepresentation of any information furnished to United or its affiliates by any member, or anyone else acting on the member’s behalf, may result in the termination of his or her membership, the cancellation of accrued mileage, certificates, awards or benefits, or both.

    4. Each member shall be responsible for remaining knowledgeable as to the Program Rules and the amount of mileage in his or her account.”

    The analogy here is the use of invalid credit card to purchase a “mistake” fare. While the carrier may not cancel the ticket or increase the fare after the transaction because of the pricing error, they should be allowed to cancel the ticket if they can show that it was the result of a fraudulent or invalid transaction.

    The DOT’s role is to protect consumers from deceptive or unfair practices, not to provide them legal cover so that they may violate the rules of a frequent flyer membership agreement.

    I don’t think I would interpret this as setting a precedent. It will probably be decided by the terms and conditions of each carrier’s program.

  21. As the adage goes, “Hard cases make bad law”. I understand that folks are pissed at UA since the merger, but the last thing we want is some GOP appointee ruling in a way that limits the DOT mistake regs. The RGN fare proves they work when applied to real mistake fares, so why kill the golden goose?

  22. I’m scratching my head over “United should give a goodwill gesture of x miles.” United should give ME a goodwill gesture fro not trying to cheat them, and being away from my computer and thus unable to take advantage of the fare. I haven’t caused United any headache; where’s my cookie?

  23. Lets be honest here, we all knew these were’t going to stick. While it would have be nice, it ws very unlikely, and yes i did buy one, and would have happily used it if United would have honored it. The only thing i wish they would have done differently was send everyone who purchased one an email stating what they have done.

  24. The last paragraph is a lie:

    AA recently ran a promo as well cutting the award rate by a half for flights to Asia. Technically, it’s not entirely unreasonable for a person to assume that this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal or pricing error at that. Also, the fact that there were two prices posted does not mean that the higher price is the correct pricing at that time. Online retailers/website typically show a higher pre-total price but charge a lower final (sale) price.

    Btw, their claim that up to the booking the advertised price is their regular redemption rate is entirely invalid. The 4-mile rate was quoted in the step where the UA’s website asked one to review the itinerary and quoted other options for purchasing the ticket without having to redeem the meager 4 miles. Simply put, an argument could be made that the 4-mile rate is part of their advertised fare having been displayed as one of the alternative to acquiring the ticket.

    I hope the DOT took this into account during their negotiation process and no wrongful information was given to them. The press seems to have gotten this wrong so I’m assuming that UA is playing this angle (i.e., the 4-miles-only-shows-in-the-end-so-it’s-not-our-advertised-fare baloney).

  25. Ill consider myself lucky i suppose, even though had one flight go MX and cancel today, they rebooked me and im on my way to HKG in the morning! However i did have other reservations i had made to take trips with friends and began to put plans in motion, and had those disappear from my account. Will see how all falls in the end, either way, im sitting in a nice hotel, enjoying good food and drink, all on uniteds tab. So i consider myself lucky i suppose!

  26. I think the difference between an award ticket mistake and a fare mistake is the fact that the correct “price” for award tickets are fully disclosed via the travel chart. While mistake fares, the airlines do not have a system where they say “First class fares starts from $10,000 and up” or whatever. So, there is no full disclosure of the appropriate price. That is what makes mistake fares more tricky than mileage redemption pricing errors for award tickets.

    Another perfect example, when the correct price is actually displayed at the beginning of the booking process, then all of sudden in the end of the booking process the system the system goes haywire and gives you a final price of $20 or whatever. Throughout the booking process the system correctly displayed the actual price, but in the end the incorrect price was charged. That is what happened with Travelocity [Look LAX-NAN for $51 and Hilton Osaka for $3]. In those cases, where the correct prices was displayed at one point during the booking process, the reservation will not be honored, because the customer saw and knew the actual price. Therefore, we knew, beyond reasonable doubt, that it is obviously a mistake.

    I think that is the case here with UA, since they fully disclosed the correct mileage redemption rate via the interactive award chart, those who got in will have the option of paying the correct amount or cancel the reservation for free. I think this is a fair thing to do and it is great they are giving those customers the option rather than just outright cancelling those reservations.

    Just my 2 cents 🙂

  27. Wow .. Some crazy strong comments. I don’t really disagree with anyone’s individual and personal opinions but United is doing the best they can and I’m sure you ll in your right mind would agree that a personal call is out of question since thousands cashed in on this deal.

    united does have the right to terminate anyone’s mileage account for whatever reason. I doubt if they would ever do that but a handful of greedy fliers probably wouldn’t change the future course of their revenue.

    I don’t have any affiliations with United but just thought if this happened to anyone who cashed in on this deal, may not have been able to make the compromise the company has.

    for me, inspite of their average international service, they will retain my loyalty.

  28. @Golfingboy

    Award redemption rates do sometimes differ from the posted chart. AA, for example, recently ran a promo as well cutting the award rate by a half for flights to Asia in Y class. Also, the fact that there were two prices posted does not mean that the higher price is the correct pricing at that time. Online retailers/website typically show a higher pre-total price but charge a lower final (sale) price.

  29. @denny

    Air Canada also ran a unpublished promotion where you could fly F for the C mileage rate or C for the Y mileage rate. It was never published, but it was official.

    We need to know if a ticket is valid or not. We shouldn’t have to guess. If United can’t trust their systems, then they should delay ticketing reservations for a couple days while they review reservations before ticketing. But once things are ticketed, they should be final.

  30. I expected to see this sense of entitlement from the newbies and college students in on the deal, but seeing it from veteran FT posters, bloggers, and even senior citizens with decades of travel experience was surprising and very disappointing. I am glad you kept some perspective.

  31. If you think that a 99.997% discount is some sort of promotion, something is wrong upstairs. I’m not saying it’s immoral or unethical to have “bought” a ticket during this mistake, but to complain that somehow you are getting shafted when it is cancelled is outrageous.

    If you want to sue United, go ahead and you will get your ass handed to you, that is assuming you can get a lawyer to take your case and some judge does not review lawsuits before they make their way past filing.
    Short of the guy who left his wallet in his carryon on the EWR-HNL flight and sued United, this is about as frivolous as it gets.

  32. Think about it this way. Imagine you bought a Ferrari and the advertised, listed price was $120,000, which everyone knew and agreed on. Then you handed your Centurion card to the dealer, he swiped it and hands you the receipt to sign, and the amount shown is $4. Would you say something, or just sign and drive off? Would you pitch a fit if the dealer realized the error a few days later and charged the balance to your card? Would you seriously believe the dealership was actually running a secret deal on Ferraris?

  33. Putting aside ALL discussion of whether or not one should have booked these tickets, how United has handled this has been a disaster. The bungles lately are so bad that not even the ‘Continental effect’ can be blamed. There should have been at least an email to the customers having tickets canceled telling them what would be done and who they could contact to ‘make their reservation right’ … not that many would be interested. Posting something to FT/MP doesn’t count. If they can cancel ‘en masse’ then they could have sent out an eblast to these folks.

  34. Ben, I found my ticket (departure in Sep) is still alive in my UA account. Is that means UA gives me a chance to fly by then?

  35. Received my United e-mailed notice at 1:00 AM this morning offering me the option to keep the reservation at the correct mileage or to cancel. As the reservation isn’t until March of 2013, I have plenty of time to let this play out (i.e. possible D.O.T. actions) until I need to make a decision. “Wait and see” might still be the best course of action.

  36. Filing a complaint to the DOT? Give me a break. To the letter of the law maybe it was a violation on United’s part but any reasonable person would see this as a purely accidental mistake. Furthermore I would place a big wager that United consulted with the DOT in some form or another before they made this decision. Now obviously it’s not fair that some where able to take advantage and others weren’t but life isn’t always fair is it? It’s time to let this one go. It has been fun to watch though!

  37. @ bluto — I’m more concerned about the youth not being able to travel. Many don’t have the four miles and $50 in taxes, so I think we were treated unfairly in this case. 😉

    @ super — Interesting. Not sure if they overlooked your ticket or what, but I’d hold off a bit. I assume you don’t have enough miles in your account?

  38. RE my earlier Post 43: – This scenerio gets weirder and weirder. Now at 10:10 AM, I receive another e-mail from United stating they are “processing my reservation” and still show 2 awards at 8 MILES TOTAL plus taxes/fees. In summary, at 1:00 AM I have the option of full FF mileage cost or cancellation and then 10 hours and 10 minutes later United reconfirms the 8 miles!!!!!!

  39. In my case, I booked 2 tickets in Economy and was quoted 260K miles at the top and then 8 miles and $81 in taxes below that. But then, a little while later, they deducted 130K miles from my account. I cancelled my itinerary that day because I didn’t want to pay even 130K for 2 E tickets and figured they wouldn’t honor the 4 miles per ticket, but I wonder now if United would have left my itinerary stand and not cancelled it seeing as how 130K is the saver award amount for my tickets.

  40. I really hope United would do something funny like this…

    Place an envelope with a letter on the seat for those specific pax travelling on these “extreme mistake” award rate tickets. The letter should indicate to the effect of “polite reminder” that “Dear customer, you are travelling on a mistake fare. As a goodwill gesture, we are honouring this mistake award rate ticket even if our company is taking a hit. We hope you enjoy the flight. We also hope that in exchange for this mistake award rate ticket you are taking advantage of, that you will consider donate a portion or equal amount of the ticket toward a non-profit organization of your choice. We have suggested some here in this letter. We hope that as a loyal customer, you will do the right thing!”

    I think a statement like this would make those pax taking advantage of this a little reminder of their own sense of “fairness”. Moral or immoral, who am I to judge.

    The truth for myself, I did book this mistake award. It’s not being honour…oh well. Clearly I knew it wasn’t going to work. Next mistake fare please. And no, I wouldn’t go out of my way to change my life schedule so I can travel immediately as soon as the mistake fare is posted. But if I happen to have free time and it works out in my favour, why not. Well, until airlines cancel it anyway.

  41. Kudos for United for making the right decision here (even if it came a bit late). As someone who thinks that United is entirely within their rights to cancel, its not that I think the people threatening to sue/file DOT complaints are greedy or evil, its just that they have no legal ground to stand on. Mistake fares are just that, mistakes. In contract law, when there is a mistake, courts typically rule against whoever bears the least burden. In this case, the people who booked UA F from the US to HKG obviously bear the least burden (unless they are midtrip/traveling tomorrow. No one who booked those tickets actually thought that 4 miles was the correct price, they were taking advantage of a computer glitch. Cancelling the tickets and refunding taxes/fees is clearly the lowest cost solution to the problem.

  42. “Most mistake fares are the same. but when it comes down to it I really don’t see a huge difference between a four mile mistake fare and a $1,400 business class mistake fare.” Ben, I would have to disagree with you on this. Gene in post 19 makes a really valid pt. “There is a HUGE difference between paying $1,500 for a business class seat to SYD/AKL and this mistake.” Paying 4 miles is like paying ZERO. In this case everyone knew it was a mistake.

  43. @ John — And you didn’t know the $1,500 business class fare to Australia was a mistake? Be honest here…

  44. I also love how some of the moralists wagging their fingers at the 4 Mile deal, are fuel dumpers. Which, I have no problem with FDs at all, personally. However if you want to talk about “taking advantage of the airline”, FD’ing is *actively seeking* to trick a fare into removing what would otherwise be a big chunk of what the airline should be getting. Rather than finding or hearing about a pricing error the airline made by their own fault or negligence.

  45. @PanAM
    If your FDs = fuel dumping of the fuel surcharges, your logic doesn’t make sense re: FDs.

    Tricking the itineraries and airline choices to avoid Fuel Surcharges is simply consumers/travellers being smart. By doing so, we are not cheating the airlines or acting immorally. Crude oil price drop/gas price remain up. Gas price gone down but airline fuel surcharges remain the same. Air Canada is one of the biggest offenders and so as its partner program Aeroplan that continue to charge ridiculous amount of $$$ on some partner airlines for fuel surcharges. Fuel Surcharges, the way I see it and most people see it, is not something the airlines should be getting from us if we can avoid it. They are simply gauging travellers’ pockets. If the booking rules allow for manipulation with possible final itineraries eliminating these fuel surcharges, then it’s not wrong/immoral of us. We’re still playing within the rules.

    It’s not the same as some people getting angry over the mistake 4/8 miles HKG award cancelled by united then threaten to sue. That is silly when you know to begin with 4/8 miles award is a mistake and still putting up a fist fight to get something that you can’t have rightfully.

  46. @ YVR604miler — I’ve gotta agree with PanAm here.

    First of all, while I completely agree that fuel surcharges have gotten out of hand and are ridiculous, we know that the fuel surcharges no longer just represent a premium in fuel, but for the airlines make up a majority of the fare in many cases. It’s a way to advertise artificially low fares, avoid paying travel agents commissions, etc.

    If we’re being honest with ourselves we know that adding a segment to an itinerary shouldn’t cause a fare to drop by hundreds of dollars, right?

    Arguing that fuel dumps are okay because the surcharges are infalted is like saying the four mile deal is okay because chances are the seat would go out empty otherwise.

    Again, not saying anything is or isn’t right, just saying that to me four mile ticket=$1,500 business class ticket=fuel dump.

  47. UA did not specify the time frame in which I can cancel my ticket without a fee (I had enough miles in my account). Can I assume that I can cancel it anytime from now to the date of departure?

  48. Hmmmm I can see how you and PanAM arrived at this conclusion, but I respectfully disagree.

    4 miles mistake award F tix = no chance for the airline to recover the lost

    $1500 mistake revenue biz tx = some $$$ to recoup by the airline, not in full but some or at least at operation cost. Perhaps.

    These are two very different scales of mistake. Yes, I am arguing that not all mistakes are the same as someone has previously pointed out. But that’s a whole dispute that I have no interest in.

    IMHO re this moral/immoral issue are:
    One is not immoral to try/take advantage of a mistake fare (regardless of the scale of the mistake)
    One is not immoral for manipulating maximum/minimum segments/airline choices to avoid fuel surcharges. The rules are well written and supplied. A very black and white thing here. If airlines don’t’ want people to FD then include it in the fares and be right up full disclosure in the airfares or award fees.
    One is surely silly (and some may say immoral) to fist fight all the way to DOT, court or whatever for a mistake fare like the 4 miles award when he/she knows it’s just blatantly a mistake and not realistic.

    There seems to be two groups of people in this blog (the way I see it…maybe there are more, enlighten me guys/gals):
    1. folks who are in for the joy/hobby/passion
    2. opportunists-ego boosting blindly taking advantage of whatever comes their way

  49. @ YVR604miler — Ah, but wait a second, you’re leaving out the most important detail of the CNZ fare — ALL tickets included travel between Sydney and Auckland on Air New Zealand, and United was still on the hook for paying Air New Zealand for these segments (after all, it was United’s mistake and not Air New Zealand’s mistake). Now, none of us know how airlines charge each other for segments, but Air New Zealand’s lowest published business class fare between Sydney and Auckland is over $2,000. On a $1,500 fare, United is down $500, not even factoring in the cost of carrying a passenger from the US to Sydney. Now, we don’t know how much United actually pays Air New Zealand for segments like that, but I have no reason to believe it’s substantially less than that.

    In the case of this HKG mistake, under most circumstances United would have been able to transport all passengers on their own metal.

    Further, if we’re going to talk about potential opportunity costs, it was MUCH higher for the Sydney flights than the Hong Kong flights. United’s published first class fare from San Francisco to Sydney is $20,000, while their published first class fare from San Francisco to Hong Kong is $10,000. So if we’re going to argue they’re potentially displacing revenue passengers, you think United would rather have $1,500 in place of a $20,000 ticket, or $0 in place of a $10,000 ticket?

  50. @ Tao — Ultimately you have it in writing without a time frame, so even if they later try to give you a hard time about canceling, just show them the email. Unless they email you with a limit on when you can cancel, I’d say you’re safe.

  51. Ben,

    Before I counter, let me say first though, i also went for this mistake fare and certainly don’t think it’s immoral to do so.

    What silly is the fact that legal clause has stipulated that UA has the right to cancel those “nonpayment” award tickets. UA has swallowed it allowing those booked for travel up until tomorrow to travel. I say that’s pretty fair.

    UA action is within the DOT terms and UA terms, so far as I understand it. So why are people still trying to fist fight it when that award price wasn’t gonna be available for them to begin with. Only silly opportunists with extra times on their hands would keep chasing this. I mean more power to them if somehow they win/get something out of it. Though I’m not one of them.

    It’s one thing to enjoy the fun and bragging right to beat the system when airlines make mistake and complete a successful travel out of it. But it’s another thing when grown adults pushing the limit of what otherwise was not rightfully available to them to begin with. Where’s the limit in this game?

    Lastly fuel dumping is not the same as taking advantage of mistake fare. It’s not an apple to an apple whatsoever. That or I just simply don’t understand your position … which is fine, because all of us are just saying our opinions out loud 😉

  52. I agree with everything that Lucky has written in this post and in the comments. YVR604miler, I fail to see that you have countered any of Lucky’s arguments. The point is a deal is a deal is a deal.

    Just as a hypothetical, let’s estimate that fuel dumps = $300 average loss per ticket to airlines (may even be on lower side of estimates). $300 x 10 or 100, and then you think about how many people are doing these fuel dumps and it’s a significant sum that airlines are losing. Somehow wanting this fare honored is like stealing but fuel dumpers aren’t able to understand how they are stealing as well? Honoring this fare would cause havoc on fares, many argue, yet fuel dumpers’ effect on airlines are largely ignored.

    Many on flyertalk think that those who want this ticket honored should be banned or kicked out of mileage plus and yet fuel dumpers are somehow given a pass. Do not understand this at all. And I was not even able to take advantage of this deal.

    There was no need to “trick” the system to get a 4 mile award but fuel dumpers are trying to “trick” the system to drop the fuel surcharges, which seems to be arguably more questionable, especially given that fuel dumpers are repeat offenders.

  53. I don’t know Bob. Creating innovative itineraries reducing fuel surcharges (and even airport fees) within the airlines “provided” rules does not = stealing. The rules allow it. Simple as that.

  54. @Lucky – your comments that “none of us know how airlines charge each other for segments” isn’t quite true. It’s actually pretty straightforward. There are two main ways that airlines handle revenue sharing on published fares. One is the straight prorate, for which IATA publishes a prorate manual. You simply apply the provisions of the manual to the relevant sectors. Alternatively, there may be a Special Prorate Agreement (SPA) which allows a fixed fare on a segment sold as part of a larger itinerary. In the case of Star Alliance, most routes are handled as straight prorates. Therefore, unless there was an SPA (or a filed proviso in the prorate manual that covered this), the pain would be shared by both selling and transporting carriers.

    With regards to the ethics of “fuel dumping” versus “mistake fares”, there is a huge difference between them. Airlines themselves create the opportunity for fuel dumping by choosing to levy a fuel surcharge. Many airlines (Emirates is a good example of this) simply avoid fuel surcharges and therefore do not expose themselves to this potential liability. The ones that, for their own commercial benefit, choose to play the game therefore run the risk that someone will play the game better than they do. Mistake fares on the other hand are just that – human errors in the course of doing business. Taking advantage of a human error is not ethical. Playing a “game” better than someone who made a willing and conscious choice to play the “game” in the first place is fine.

    Just my $0.02 as someone who has experience both on the airline and consumer side with both of these scenarios.

  55. Also, just as an additional comment here, airlines play the “fuel dump” game against each other all the time. It is not just a consumer vs airline deal. There are significant commercial advantages to an airline who can interline without having to charge YQs on partner metal as they are able to retain a higher chunk of the overall fare charged. This is simply the latest iteration of the big game that travel agents, interline desks and consumers have played against each other for decades. The internet has just brought the opportunity for new players in their living rooms. Consumer level fuel games are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of value, which is why the fixing of so many “holes” are simply de-prioritised until they become more widely known.

  56. To everyone that’s filing a DOT claim: I just want to point out that during the RGN fiasco KE had not collected/charged me for the cancelled ticket up until rebooking the ticket. I know this for a fact and have daily screen shots of my cc account showing all pending charges. I booked through Travelgenio and was charged the ticketing fee a few days after my initial booking. KE had not charged my credit, which made me nervous that the DOT ruling would not apply here since I had not been charged the “full amount”. Arguments against the applicability of the recent DOT rulings due to nondeduction of the 4 miles is completely rubbish if one were to use the RGN scenario as a precedent. Hope this helps anyone in their letter to the DOT.

  57. YVR604 miler:

    I could say the statement back to you about a 4 mile award as well, with slight tweaks so it makes sense:

    “Creating a basic itinerary within United’s award reservation system does not = stealing. The website allowed a 4 mile award. Simple as that.”

    You can see that the above statement has circular reasoning. In effect, the statement is that “It’s allowed by the system so it must not be stealing.”

    Flyertalk is riddled with horrible analogies but here is a better one:

    1) 4 mile award mistake fare is like finding a $100 bottle of champagne for $1 at the grocery store with a temporary price glitch.

    2) Fuel dumps are similar to finding a $100 bottle of champagne but figuring out that buying a loaf of bread of $5 reduces the champagne price to $50, for a total checkout price of $55. Then people try to theorize what else they can buy to lower the total purchase price of champagne. Not only champagne but people try to figure out how to buy other items more cheaply.

    Scenario 1 has a bigger shock value to be sure, but no. 2 seems to be equally bad, no? Scenario 1: you rush to store buy champagne, even more champagne then you arguably need. Scenario 2: you strategize and strategize to figure out best combo to lower total purchase price of desired item.

  58. @Bob Law – your analogy isn’t quite accurate.

    A closer analogy would be “buy a loaf of bread and get 50% off any other purchase”. If you buy the loaf of bread and use the discount for your champagne, you’re just being a smart consumer. If the discount was not intended to be used with the champagne, it would have stated that.

    The point of fuel dumps is not to obtain something at a price it isn’t intended to be sold at. It is to find which combination of items generates the lowest unit cost for the item you want.

  59. Sean M.:

    I fail to see a distinction between omission or commission. Whether a mistake is created by purposely selecting a certain system (one with fuel surcharges or choosing SHARES/a bad IT system) or leaving off a 0 or two (fuel surcharge is left off, wrong currency or currency conversion rate is used, or a typo), the bottom-line is that an error is made somewhere and what resulted is a fare that airlines did not intend to create for consumers.

    My opinion is that you either lump them all together as unethical or all of them as ethical. Make no mistake, consumers are trying to get the best deal in all scenarios, often making airlines bear significant costs.

    If you think further about it, fares with fuel dumps are also “error” fares because they erroneously leave off fuel dumps. Also, many mistake fares are a result of fuel surcharge being left or calculated incorrectly.

  60. Sean M:

    I don’t think your analogy makes any sense. Bottom-line is that to airlines, to the world and to consumers-at-large, my analogy is better and makes much more sense. Your analogy is only from point of view of fuel dumpers who try to rationalize their own behavior.

    You assertion that the goal of fuel-dumping game is not the “price it isn’t intended to be sold at” but it is “lowest unit cost for item you want.” Does this pass straight-face test? I fail to see how these are different things. If I am the customer purchasing something from a supplier, price and cost are synonymous and interchangeable.

  61. Okay Bob on behalf of Seam M and I, we’ll let you win the argument with specific that only you seem to understand.

    Apple not = Orange.

  62. I dunno, Bob, Sean M and YVR60’s arguments and analogies make just as must sense as yours do…

  63. Ok, lets try to put this in simpler terms. Supposing that a ticket from New York to Tokyo cost $1000 plus $800 in fuel surcharges. However, adding a segment from (for example) Atlanta to Savannah added $50 in fare, but took away the $800 in fuel surcharges on the first leg.

    If you actually wanted to buy NYC-TYO//ATL-SAV on a single ticket, the CORRECT price would be $1050 and no fuel surcharges. There is no “mistake” in play here. It isn’t as if the correct price is $1850 and you are somehow getting away with a lower price due to a temporary error. The actual price intended to be charged is being charged. The lower prices comes about because of the rules that are set by the airline itself. This may seem counter-intuitive (buying more gets you a lower price), but then again so is the fact that buying a round-trip fare is often lower than buying just a one-way fare on the same flight.

    Bottom line – a fuel dump is buying something at a price that the seller actually intends to sell it at, while a mistake fare is taking advantage of an error to buy something at a price that the seller does not intend. There is a huge difference between the two.

  64. @YVR604miler

    Er, I was sticking up for you, you boob. I guess some people are just that contrary that they like to disagree/look for an argument wherever they can find it.

  65. Sean M.:

    I appreciate you trying another example, but don’t agree that airlines intend fuel-dumped fares for reasons stated up-thread. Btw, I understand how fuel-dumps generally work (e.g., 1x, 3x, OJ).

    Are fuel dumps really intended by airlines? I’ll posit some thoughts:

    1) If the airlines intended fuel dumped fares, there would be no need for code words and mystery. Why not out in the open? If they are intended, they could be replicated in the future and there would not be backlash at a blog such as AFWD for revealing a popular trick.

    2) Contrast fuel-dumped fares with hidden-city ticketing, throwaway ticketing, etc. Fuel dumping is like hidden-city ticketing and throwaway ticketing on crack, of course. In your example, the second leg, ATL-SAV, is most likely a throwaway ticket. But, here’s the distinction: fares that lead to hidden-city ticketing or throw-away ticketing (such as domestic fares without fuel dumps) may always be around due to airlines wanting to differentiate between the relative pockets of different markets. The loopholes for “tricks”, on the other hand, are closed from time to time (e.g., AFWD).

    3) Why does flyertalk not want the “tricked” deals to appear on the mileage runs page? If it’s a normal fare, why is it moved to trick-it page? By your implication, a fuel-dumped fare and any other fare shouldn’t be treated differently. This different treatment by flyertalk to protect these kinds of fuel-dumped fares are, of course, to keep it from the penetrating eye of airlines as much as possible. I even know some tricks just by being a flyertalk member. I wonder how fast my post would be closed if I posted them on flyertalk?

    4) It appears that fuel dumpers for the most part get away with it (which, I’m perfectly OK with). What if an airline catches a fuel dumper, just as they might catch an egregious hidden-city ticketing passenger? Would it be OK for an airline to either ask the passenger to pay for all of the fuel surcharge money that the airline lost, or such passenger would risk cancellation of mileage account and ban on future travel? I bet flyertalk would be in an uproar and mad… the same folks who say United shouldn’t honor a 4 mile award fare. Price increase post-purchase doesn’t sound so good now, huh?

    I want to again state how poor the 50% off coupon analogy is. Let’s just take hidden-city ticketing. LAX-ORD one-way costs $200, just as a hypothetical, but LAX-ORD-MKE is $150. I only want to end up in ORD and will buy the LAX-ORD-MKE ticket and throw-away ORD-MKE. ORD-MKE is a 25% off coupon by your description. At least ORD-MKE is a part of a normally published fare and isn’t some random flight like the 13-miler that passenger has little to no likelihood of flying.

    The most ironic thing is that I support fuel dumps, and I don’t wish to expose any tricks. But, I do, again, want to point out the hypocrisy of those who fuel dump and the concept that fuel-dumps are excepted from moral judgment but mistake fares are not.

  66. @Bob – I think the point I am making is that it is a commercial choice that airlines make to engage (or not engage) in fare distribution with fuel surcharges. I know this because this is what I do for a living (on the airline side). As I mentioned earlier, the consumer level fuel dump issues are usually such a tiny percentage of overall interline billings that taking action to stop them would often cost more than the additional revenue that those actions would generate.

    To use another analogy, a grocer may chose to put samples of his vegetables out on the street to entice customers in, but sometimes it rains and they get ruined. If it rained every day, he’d no longer find that the benefits outweigh the costs and he’d stop doing it.

    That’s what airlines do. When more people begin to use a specific method to fuel dump (and believe me, there are methods used by some travel agents that make the folks on FT seem quite amateur in comparison) and the cost-benefit analysis favours changing the rules, the airline will change the rules. Until they do that, the rules are still what the airlines want them to be.

    So, in response to your questions :

    1) Because mass market publicity and the resulting adoption of the publicised methodology pretty much pushes the cost-benefit analysis into the red as too many people use it and skew its benefits. So they act quickly to change the rules.

    2) If someone engages in throwaway ticketing as part of a fuel dump, that is a different story. Most fuel dumps (again, not necessarily the FT ones) are perfectly legitimate though. I would not consider a throwaway segment on a fuel dump to be ethical.

    3) That’s something I completely disagree with and was something I opposed vehemently back when I served on TalkBoard (IIRC, both Lucky and Gary also voted with me on that issue). If the goal of FT is to share information, the access to information should not be restricted artificially, for better or for worse.

    4) Believe me, airline revenue accounting departments know more about fuel dumps than the most active FTer has forgotten. Any basic revenue accounting software can identify every fuel dumped PNR on a flight in no more than a few seconds if someone wanted to go fishing for it. Using the regulations to avoid ticketing with fuel surcharges is not a violation of anything and airlines will not accuse anyone of violating anything as a result.

    Interesting discussion that I don’t think we necessarily disagree on in principle, but rather just on the semantics of some of the applications.

  67. This is still going?! I’m just gonna go look for next deal!

    ps. Andy Bluebear, I totally was just being [funny] sarcastic, sorry it didn’t come across right. Didn’t mean to pick on you.

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