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This United China-gate 2012 incident where award tickets were “sold” on United for 4 miles each plus tax is just getting more and more entertaining. A short recap is that reward tickets to China were sold for 4 miles each on Sunday afternoon for a period of a few hours. I secured three tickets in First Class to China from Texas for my family (Grandma, my kiddo, and myself) for June 2013, as the opportunity was just way too good to pass up. Of course, it was clearly an error as actual reward tickets in first class to China for three people would cost hundreds of thousands of miles – not 12 miles plus $121.50 in taxes. However, I was happy to purchase three seats and sit back to see what would happen next.
A little over 24 hours passed and then an “official” announcement from United was posted from their representative on Milepoint.com and Flyertalk.com. That statement indicated that customers would be contacted, and would have the option of either cancelling the reservation for no penalty or they would be required to pay the regular number of miles required. That was a bummer as a virtually free trip would have been awesome, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected. In fact, it is the outcome that most people (myself included) seem to have believed was most likely.
However, the story didn’t stop there. According to this USA Today article, it seems the Department of Transportation had been contacted by several folks and they made the following statement:
Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, says the department is looking into several complaints it received about the frequent-flier tickets.
Mosley says the new rule would apply to frequent-flier tickets, “particularly when they also entail cash payments.”
The rule says that no post-purchase price increase can occur after a customer receives a confirmation of the purchase “even when the fare is a ‘mistake.’ “
Hmmm, guess that means the plot has thickened a bit. I know I have not been contacted by United, nor have I noticed any changes to my ticketed and confirmed reservation. To be clear, I don’t think I “deserve” a virtually free ticket to China. I knew it was a mistake when I booked it, and life will move on just fine if it ultimately isn’t honored. That said, I will happily go and discover China with my family if the ticket is honored. As I posted on Milepoint, I’ll even volunteer to head up some charity activity in honor of the virtually free trip so many of us will get if it is honored. I’m all for keeping some balance in the miles and points universe. 😉
However, whether the tickets are honored or not, this whole incident has raised some interesting questions in my mind. What if it had been 40,000 miles charged instead of 4? 40,000 miles is still less than the regular posted mileage rate to China, but it isn’t unheard of for there to be specials or discounted mileage rates from time to time on various airlines. It would be reasonable to assume that not everyone booking at 40,000 miles would know it was an error, and those customers would reasonably make other travel plans to go along with their tickets as believe they are headed to Asia. Would it still be okay for an airline to come back and say oops – that was a computer glitch, either cough up more miles (that the customer may not have), or your confirmed reservation is now cancelled. If that is the case, what is a reasonable time frame by which the airline should personally notify the customer of the issue? At the very least, I hope we get some of those types of questions answered as a result of “China-gate 2012”.
I know people are already traveling on the 4 mile tickets, and more have reservations coming up over the next several days. Mine isn’t for 10 more months, so I am sure all will be sorted out by then, but how long should the airlines have to notify passengers of a mistake that won’t be honored?
I’m not out to “stick it to United”, but I’m also not going to sit on the sideline and miss out on what could amount to a chance of a lifetime. For better or worse, I’ll still be a United flyer regardless of the outcome of this situation, but I certainly wouldn’t complain if they did decide to honor the tickets. I know for sure with more and more mainstream media stories popping up about this issue today (including the AP and NBC), that the end of the saga has not yet been told.
If you do have a reservation like I do, my advice is to just sit tight and see what happens. Obviously if your travel is imminent, you need to decide how you are going to proceed. If you fall in that camp, I would make sure your hotel reservations are refundable right up until you depart for China. If you didn’t get in on this “oops” IT opportunity, I would still carefully watch how this saga unfolds, as it may impact an award reservation you hold in the future.