Early today, a FlyerTalk thread popped up with a pretty phenomenal United premium fare from the United Kingdom to many places in some cases for as little as $85 USD. Perhaps the most amazing thing to me, was how fast things played out. It hit the blogs quickly, I think, starting with Gary Leff’s View from the Wing, who to his credit kept updating it, in some cases, minutes apart, as the fare started to take steam. He was followed with posts by numerous other bloggers.
The fare was the result of what I suspect was a foreign conversion error. In fact, as reported by Ben Mutzabaugh at USA Today, United released a statement stating that the error was the result of:
an error a third-party software provider made when it applied an incorrect currency exchange rate, despite United having properly filed its fares.
So, we already see United laying the groundwork to back-up its’ case for cancelling what United reports as “several thousand” tickets. Wow. several thousand. Ok, that’s pretty significant for just a few hours. I suspect that someone in IT or reservations likely pulled a Shia LaBeouf, like:
Inevitably, what follows after United’s shutting down of the fare, and subsequent cancellation of the fare is the effort of folks to try to get United to reconsider. I’ll offer my thoughts on that, because I hope, I might add something to the discussion.
Why fare bookers might have a leg to stand on
The Department of Transportation rule is fairly clear – here’s a quote of it:
§ 399.88 Prohibition on post-purchase price increase.(a) 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.(b) A seller of scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States or 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, must notify a consumer of the potential for a post-purchase price increase due to an increase in a government-imposed tax or fee and must obtain the consumer’s written consent to the potential for such an increase prior to purchase of the scheduled air transportation, tour or tour component that includes scheduled air transportation. Imposition of any such increase without providing the consumer the appropriate notice and without obtaining his or her written consent of the potential increase constitutes an unfair and deceptive practice within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. 41712.[Doc. No. DOT-OST-2010-0140, 76 FR 23167, Apr. 25, 2011] (emphasis mine)
To boil it down, that means – if you bought a fare from the United Kingdom to the United States, you may be covered by this particular DOT rule. Note, there’s no discussion of whether the fare purchaser tricked or otherwise manipulated the booking engine.
Why United might have a leg to stand on
United already laid the groundwork, stating that this is an IT issue and its fares were properly filed. Its weak, but, here’s how it could get stronger. First off, Gary wrote back in June that DOT wants to clamp down on Forums and Blogs spreading mistake fares and having them honored. The proposed rule states:
The Enforcement Office has become concerned that increasingly mistaken fares are getting posted on frequent-flyer community blogs and travel deal sites, and individuals are purchasing these tickets in bad faith and not on the mistaken belief that a good deal is now available.
At the time, DOT just provided a notice of proposed rule making. As best I can tell, it hasn’t been finalized, in fact, you can see here, that it states: “Final Rule,” but I can’t find whether this really did get finalized. That said, if you look at Gary’s link (the first one, about today’s fare), he paid close attention not to call this a mistake fare. Others were not as careful and committed a “no-no”, for example, here:
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this could very well be used in United’s favor in the event that proposed rule change is finalized. In fairness, it is identified as a “mistaken fare” on FlyerTalk too.
The second point in United’s favor is that you needed to do something bordering on manipulation of United’s booking engine by leaving the country as “Denmark” in the billing address. Its in the eye of the beholder, but, I’d argue, its enough to raise the question.
With reportedly “several thousand” tickets purchased at a fraction of what United normally charges for premium cabins, I suspect this is going to be contested by some fare bookers. I also suspect that United is going to fight it, hard. For me, the greater concerns are the implications to the bigger picture: (1) Social Media (among other aspects) are causing mistake fares to be spread far and wide, faster than ever before, (2) The DOT has already looked at whether mistake fares are being posted, knowing full well they are mistakes and not just “good deals.” What the difference between a “good deal” vs. a “mistake fare” is, is a much broader discussion and certainly much harder to answer.
While it is fun to watch some of these things from the sidelines, I cringe when folks become overzealous like Canadian Kilometers lodging a cabotage-related complaint, leading to a well known “trick” being killed for everybody. Much like Manufactured Spending, when these things get spotlights, more folks are hurt than helped.
What do you think? Should folks lodge complaints with the Department of Transportation about United’s cancellation of their tickets?