Friday, July 20, 2012

Why I think United handled the "4 mile award ticket" situation correctly.

Much news over the weekend surrounding a computer "glitch" that allowed some United Mileage Plus members to book award tickets to/from Asia for four (4) miles plus applicable taxes (around $35 bucks).  Depending on what side you fell this was either the greatest mistake fare in history or the greediest attempt at customer dishonesty in recorded history.

Most of the Boarding Area travel bloggers, Mommy Points, View From the Wing, & One Mile at a Time have all reported that United is taking a 3-tier approach to the situation:

(From UA Insider on FlyerTalk)
  • 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.
Here's the rub:  From what I can tell, AT NO TIME did United ever advertise these award flights as being priced at 4 miles.  The advertised rate was always the regular amount of miles that it would take to fly this route.  As a result of a computer glitch, the incorrect miles were charged to some accounts.

In other words, United NEVER OFFERED these flights at 4 miles.

That's kind of a big deal, because if they had advertised the fares at 4 miles (in a way similar to the $64 NYC-ORD mistake fare from a week ago) then, according to the DOT regulations, they would be on the hook for honoring the price.  As it is, until the mistake was discovered and broadcast wildly across the Internet, the purchasing customer would have had no expectation of receiving the ticket for such a small price.  If you didn't know about it and went online to book the fare it would show you the typical round trip pricing (currently the "saver reward" {typically the lowest price} to HKG is 32,500 for coach, 60,000 for business while first class can be had on a regular reward for 160,000 {no saver for FC, costs are one-way}).  These are the same prices (Your mileage may vary, depending on starting city) that users would have seen when they booked this mistake fare.

Realistically then, this is the price that they should have been willing to pay.  That one guy figured out there was a glitch, and that the travel blogging industry and message boards went mad passing that glitch around are irrelevant at this time.  By clicking on the button at the advertised rate the customer was de-facto agreeing to the published rate, acting like United was somehow obligated to honor the mistake rate is disingenuous at best.

The second area of customer complaint is that it took United a long time to say anything.  Yes, it did, and it will take all airlines longer to respond to major issues in lieu of the "passenger bill of rights" that regulates them to the whims of the DOT with severe penalties for non-compliance.  I'm sure there were negotiations, legal review and all kinds of discussions happening between United and the DOT until the final solution was agreed upon.

So now United has come out and realized that, no matter what they do, they're going to make some enemies with people who really want to keep their something for nothing.  I think they're doing the right thing by honoring people who are already in the air, cancelling those who didn't have the miles in the first place, and offering free cancellations for those who do.  It's really the best that they can do in this situation, which is ultimately going to be another huge black eye for COdbaUA (as it's called on the message boards).

So that's that then, and I imagine someone in United's IT department is either brushing off their resume right now, or is in for a very bad bonus at the beginning of next year.

Two tangents:

Customers saying they're going to file a DOT complaint: Good luck with that, because it appears to me that the "advertised rate" that you signed on to was correct. I highly doubt anything will come of this.

Travel bloggers: There's some discussion about the travel bloggers who broadcast this fare and whether or not they were in the wrong.  I don't have any problem with a travel blogger posting about the fare but, and I haven't read all of the posts so I don't know if this happened, IF a blogger knew this was an obvious mistake and encouraged people to run out and jump on it then I'm thinking that crossed the line.  Travel boards are both good and bad, and travel bloggers too. I'm not sure if this discussion is ever going to be fully developed but a lot of these travel bloggers make money from the companies they choose to blog about.  It's been widely reported that United has disengaged themselves from the monetization of bloggers. What impact that has on how they cover the airline is open to interpretation.  And so it goes.

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