United Won’t Honor Thousands of Cheap Flights Booked in Error

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United Airlines
United Airlines signage is displayed as passengers check in for travel at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles. In September 2013 United listed tickets for free on its website, forcing it to shut its booking engine until it could fix the problem. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

United Airlines said it won’t honor cheap flights booked by passengers as a result of a computer error that showed trips such as a $75 first-class fare from London to Newark, New Jersey.

“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,” Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. United filed its fares properly, he said.

Travel bloggers and chat room members of the Flyertalk website began talking about the glitch early Wednesday. By following certain steps, including changing the passenger’s host country to Denmark, it was possible to book international flights at exceptionally low fares. The travel blog Dansdeals cited a fare of 502 Danish kroner, or $76.28, between London’s Heathrow Airport and Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Oct. 13.

The website detailed a series of steps required to book the tickets, including leaving the billing country as Denmark and using a credit card without a transaction fee.

United said most of the errant bookings were for travel originating in the U.K. 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.

Among them was Alison Keunen, a newly married New Yorker whose husband lives in Manchester, England. She only sees her spouse five times a year, so she called him as soon as she heard about United’s glitch. She pushed him to make up his mind quickly, before the carrier discovered the problem, and they booked a Manchester to Newark flight for $125.

Incredibly Disappointed

After hearing that United would void her tickets, Keunen said she was “incredibly disappointed,” since the cheap ticket meant she would have gotten to see her husband an extra time.

“I won’t be choosing United Airlines in the future,” she said in an e-mail. “There are so many other airlines out there, so I think it was a bad move for them to make.”

Price glitches have become common enough that some people troll websites and chat rooms waiting to stumble across one. Word of a good deal spreads quickly through social media as friends, family and colleagues tip each other off on the bargains until the loophole is closed. It’s at least the second time in just over a year that Chicago-based United has been in this quandary and Delta Air Lines Inc. also found itself in a similar situation in late 2013.

In September 2013 United listed tickets for free on its website, forcing it to shut its booking engine until it could fix the problem. The airline decided to honor the fares, without disclosing details of what happened or how many tickets were issued at $0.

Three months later, Delta also honored an unspecified number of tickets erroneously sold on its website and other booking channels. The Delta bargains included a round-trip flight to Hawaii from $6.90.

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