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United has posted a statement saying that it will not honor the mistake fares I posted about this morning that allowed one way or roundtrip First Class bookings from the United Kingdom to the United States for $100 or so. Here is the entire statement:

United is voiding the bookings of several thousand individuals who were attempting to take advantage of an error a third-party software provider made when it applied an incorrect currency exchange rate, despite United having properly filed its fares. Most of these bookings were for travel originating in the United Kingdom, and the level of bookings made with Danish Kroner as the local currency was significantly higher than normal during the limited period that customers made these bookings.

Isn’t that impressive? Several thousand tickets were booked. Good work guys! I couldn’t get my ticket booking done because Argentina.

My instinct on these is that every single person who booked one of the mistake fears knew it was a mistake, and over 99% of the people who booked one found out about the mistake from a forum or blog post that made it clear that this was a mistake. Maybe its my moral compass or maybe its my Contracts class from law school talking, but I think mistake should void a contract. Since United has cancelled the tickets within about 8 hours of their booking, no one should be inconvenienced by the bookings unless they made other non-refundable arrangements.

However, current United States Department of Transportation regulations are actually pretty clear that United can’t cancel mistake fares. That would constitute “increas[ing] the price” of air transportation after purchase, which is forbidden. (It is an increase in the price because canceling the ticket means the only way to fly the route is to purchase a new, more expensive ticket.) Check out all the legalese in 14 CFR 399.88. Based on my thoughts in the previous paragraph, I’d urge people to consider the mistake fare a free lottery ticket. If it’s honored, you win. If it isn’t, you didn’t lose, and you had fun playing. All this drama is fun.

But I’m sure a lot of people will file DOT complaints and maybe law suits. They are within their rights to take this mistake-fare saga that route, but morally they’re in the wrong. United isn’t trying to get one over on these people. These people are trying to get one over on United.

Now before anyone posts too angry of a reply, I want to clarify that I don’t think this is a small matter or morality, not a big one. If my friend said he was filing a DOT complaint, I’d say, “I hope you lose, but you’re still my friend.” It would be on the level of telling me he supported a different presidential candidate than me. No big deal.

I’ll be interested in how this all plays out, and I will keep everyone posted.

What’s your take? Did United respond appropriately? Is a DOT complaint appropriate?

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