Back in February, United had a mistake fare which was due to a currency conversion error, whereby first class tickets from the UK on Star Alliance carriers were pricing for pennies on the dollar. The catch is that you had to book through United’s Danish website, which was converting amounts incorrectly.
Many people managed to issue tickets, though United didn’t honor the fare. This set an interesting precedent, in light of the Department of Transportation regulations concerning price changes after ticketing, which are extremely pro-consumer:
(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.
While technically it seemed like United might be forced to honor the fares, the DOT actually ended up ruling in United’s favor. The ruling read, in part, as follows:
After a careful review of the matter, including the thousands of submissions from consumers and information from United, the Enforcement Office has decided that it will not take action against United for not honoring the tickets. The mistaken fares appeared on a website that was not marketed to consumers in the United States. In order to purchase a ticket, individuals had to go to United’s Denmark website which had fares listed in Danish Krone throughout the purchasing process. In addition, only people who identified “Denmark” as their location/country where billing statements are received when entering billing information at the completion of the purchase process were able to complete their purchase at the mistaken fare levels. Consistent with the Office’s treatment of fare advertisements and disclosure of baggage fees, it does not intend to enforce the rule in question (the post-purchase price increase prohibition) when the fare offer is not marketed to consumers in the United States. Additionally, the Office is concerned that to obtain the fare, some purchasers had to manipulate the search process on the website in order to force the conversion error to Danish Krone by misrepresenting their billing address country as Denmark when, in fact, Denmark was not their billing address country. This evidence of bad faith by the large majority of purchasers contributed to the Enforcement Office’s decision.
But here’s possibly the most interesting part of this whole thing. The Department of Transportation’s April 2015 Air Travel Consumer Report contains information on how many “opinions” were filed by consumers with the DOT over a given period.
The February 2015 statistics (when the mistake fare occurred) are shocking:
So 15,227 “opinions” were filed in February 2015. The chart has the following footnote:
*Of the 15,227 opinions received by the Department in February, 15,190 were from consumers who purchased tickets on United Airlines’ Denmark website at mistaken fare levels. For additional information see http://www.dot.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/Mistaken_Fare_AEP_Statement_on_United_Airlines.pdf.
That’s right. 15,190 opinions were filed from consumers who purchased United Airlines’ mistake fare.