United (and I would imagine collaboratively with the Department of Transportation) have come up with an interesting solution.
- They will allow anyone with travel commencing by July 21 to fly.
- They will allow anyone who had the ‘usual’ number of miles deducted from their account to cancel for a full refund without penalty.
- They are cancelling all reservations that were booked without the full normal mileage cost deducted where travel begins after July 21.
The DOT has to stand by its regulations, which forbid cancelling tickets and raising price after ticketing under most circumstances.
The DOT has now even said their rules apply to frequent flyer award tickets.
And yet it wasn’t really something that United owed its customers, to fly them in many cases in last seat inventory and in first class to Hong Kong, and sometimes even beyond in first class on partners.
I say that even as the person who first publicized this error in North America. (Which I know angers some, I’ve gotten a few nasty messages over my willingness to admit that the 4 mile price was a mistake, saying I should contend it could have been a flash sale.)
So United maintains that the correct pricing was displayed throughout the booking process, and is posted prominently on its website. Thus there was no deceptive pricing.
Folks who had the right number of miles in their accounts paid that normal price. Folks who didn’t have the usual number of miles in their accounts didn’t actually have ANY miles withdrawn (the 4 miles per person were never even debited).
United is cancelling the tickets FOR NON-PAYMENT, which is permitted under DOT rules. No deception, and not raising the price after booking.
This allows United to not honor the mistake, and the DOT rules to be affirmed in the process.
Some might even call it a ‘Marbury Moment’ for the FOT — acceptance of their rules while letting the airline off the hook in this instance.
The only piece that’s been problematic, truly, is the way United handled this with its customers — no direct word to anyone for about 5 days, postings on Milepoint and Flyertalk (notably not on this blog where the fare originated), and ultimately going back on its initial statement that folks who paid less than the normal price would be given an opportunity to pay full price for their itinerary if they wished. Most wouldn’t. Probably no one would.
But not communicating for several days and not handling things in the manner they stated publicly that they would is problematic. It’s a misdemeanor at worst, and this one was a bit of a novel situation given new DOT rules.
That this happened in the first place reflects badly on United’s already atrocious IT. That they took so long to communicate reflects badly on their service. In the end though I don’t think anyone got materially less than they deserved.