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United's $5 Tickets: To Honor or to Cancel, That's the Question

United's $5 Tickets: To Honor or to Cancel, That's the Question
Photograph by Michael Weber/Alamy

United Airlines is mulling whether to honor tickets it issued Thursday for as little as $5, a decision that may come down to whether the cost of the lost revenue outweighs whatever kind of penalty the Department of Transportation may levy on behalf of consumers who could see their bargain trip eliminated.

Because of a glitch on the airline’s website, United offered fares for $0 for two hours on Thursday. To fix the problem, it shut down its site. The fares were not offered through other sales channels, a company spokeswoman told Bloomberg News. Many of the tickets cost $5 to $10 total, which means that United’s booking engine was applying only the Sept. 11 federal security fee to transactions and not taxes. That suggests United’s site was issuing the flights as award tickets, associated with frequent flier mileage redemption, on which the taxes are not included, says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, an airfare tracking service. He says it was clear that United had not filed “zero dollar” fares on airline distribution systems, as airlines have done in the past by mistake.