Earlier this week, the travel blogosphere was abuzz with news of what was clearly an example of a mistake fare: United award tickets to or from Hong Kong on offer for four MileagePlus miles plus the normal taxes and fees.
I didn't write about it at the time. Why? First, because it was obviously a mistake on United's part. And second, because there was a good chance that when the mistake was discovered, United would cancel any bookings made at the incorrect rate.
There is a school of thought that suggests that companies are responsible for whatever mistakes they make in communicating their prices, and that they should honor any offers that have been made public, no matter how self-evidently erroneous.
I get it, but I don't buy it.
Sure, I like a great deal as much as the next guy. But when the cashier gives me change for a $20 when I only tendered a $10, I point out the error and return the extra. If an inexact one, that strikes me as a fair analogy to the United error.
If the Golden Rule applies at my corner grocery store, it should apply at a Fortune 500 company as well. At least that's my take.
As it turns out, United did discover the error and will not honor the four-mile-per-trip award bookings.
Here's United's official response, as posted on FlyerTalk:
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.
Director, Customer Insights
The predictable outrage ensued, with calls to sue, complain to the DOT, book away from United, and so on.
As it turns out, the DOT is looking into complaints raised by those who booked the cheap award tickets. According to the Wall Street Journal, a recent ruling prohibiting airlines from rescinding mistake fares after they've been booked also applies to tickets purchased with miles.
I still don't buy it. I do believe that airlines should do something to compensate those who took up the offer, some of whom may after all have honestly thought the mistake was a promotion and booked it in good faith. But to force the airlines to stand behind such errors seems excessively punitive.
It's no surprise that many consumers have no compunction when it comes to taking advantage of mistake fares. After all, airlines are among the most reviled of enterprises, alongside credit card issuers and cellphone providers. Screwing the screwer can be awfully satisfying. And really, who wouldn't relish the chance to fly to Hong Kong for four miles and chump change?
But for all the satisfaction afforded by a deal that combines revenge and outsized value, it's neither reasonable nor fair.
That's why I don't buy it. And I don't recommend that my readers buy it either.
Reader Reality Check
What's your take on mistake fares?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.
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