Back in July, in what was obviously an example of a "mistake fare," United offered MileagePlus award tickets to Hong Kong for four (count 'em!) miles.
Naturally, legions of opportunistic shoppers jumped on the deal, knowing full well that the offer would be terminated as soon as United realized its mistake.
United indeed terminated the offer. More controversially, they contacted those who booked the low-cost tickets and offered to either rebook them at the correct price or cancel their bookings and redeposit their miles. That raised the hackles of some, who took their displeasure to the Department of Transportation (DOT) in the form of a formal complaint, claiming that, once published, United was bound to honor the misstated prices.
The DOT has considered their complaint, and last week communicated its ruling, as follows:
We have completed our review of United's conduct regarding its recent Frequent Flyer fare sale to Hong Kong from the United States on its website. Our review found that the actual price of the advertised fare was never clearly stated during the booking process, thereby creating ambiguous circumstances in which it could be reasonably interpreted that the actual price of the fare was significantly more than the amount consumers paid at the time they attempted to purchase the fare, e.g., $40 plus four frequent flyer miles. Therefore, we are not able to establish that consumers, in fact, paid the full amount of the offered fare at the time of purchase. Accordingly, the evidence does not support a finding that United engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of the relevant statute. Please note that, regardless of the outcome of our investigation, consumers are free to pursue claims (e.g., a breach of contract claim) against the airline in an appropriate civil court for monetary damages and other remedies particular to their situation.
The DOT ruling is a very narrow one. It turns on the fact that there was allegedly some ambiguity in United's statement (or misstatement) of the award price and therefore would-be buyers should have recognized that the intended price was much higher.
Indeed, pretty much anyone who saw the four-mile price had to have known it was a mistake. But they knew it not because of any ambiguity in what United said, but because it was so preposterously at odds with the published price for a Hong Kong award ticket.
And while the DOT absolved United of engaging in "an unfair and deceptive practice," it left open the possibility that lawsuits filed in civil court against United might be pursued successfully.
In the end, the DOT ruling strikes a blow for common sense, although it isn't grounded in common sense reasoning.
Personally, I'd like to see a precedent set that says clearly and unambiguously that airlines cannot be required to honor fares, whether in dollars or miles, that are self-evidently mistakes. This isn't it.
Reader Reality Check
What say you: Should airlines be required to stand by fares that are obvious misprints or computer glitches?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.