United Seen Dodging Need to Redeem Errant Fares Amid U.S. ReviewMichael Sasso
While U.S. regulators will review a United Airlines software glitch that made tickets available for exceptionally low prices, legal experts doubt that the carrier will have to honor the fares.
The United Continental Holdings Inc. unit on Wednesday issued trans-Atlantic tickets for as little as $50 and said later that it would void the fares for several thousand passengers. That prompted people to post hundreds of comments complaining on chat sites such as FlyerTalk. Several cited a Transportation Department rule that prohibits airlines from boosting the price of a ticket after it is issued.
“It’s true that DOT rules require airlines to honor a fare once a flight is booked and the passenger is confirmed,” Anita Mosner, an aviation attorney with Holland & Knight firm in Washington, said Thursday. “However, DOT has had a longstanding policy of permitting carriers to cancel bookings when there has been evidence of passengers’ manipulation or misrepresentations during booking, or misstating their status.”
To get the tickets, customers went onto United’s Danish website and exploited an error in the local currency’s exchange rate. The problem occurred after a software vendor entered the incorrect rate between the Danish krone and the British pound.
United may simply need to show that a customer misrepresented that his home country was Denmark, Mosner said.
The DOT said it is investigating the incident, “including speaking to United about this matter and reviewing consumer complaints. The DOT’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings will determine whether United has to honor the fares, the department said.
News of the errant prices spread quickly on FlyerTalk and other travel chat sites and blogs, which gave instructions on how to take advantage of the mistake. That included switching the country of origin on United.com to Denmark and booking flights from the U.K.
Users of the sites traded tales of scoring bargain fares. A person from New York said in an interview that she bought round-trip tickets and travel insurance for her husband from Manchester, England, to Newark, New Jersey, for $125.
People commenting on FlyerTalk said United must honor the errant fares under DOT Section 399.88. The rule says it is unfair or deceptive for an airline to raise the price of a ticket after purchase, except when the government raises a tax or fee.
Mosner and another aviation attorney, Mary Schiavo, said the rule probably won’t be enforced in this incident. Schiavo, a former DOT inspector general, said United could argue that no one could reasonably believe that she could get a first-class fare for $75 or so.
‘‘The tax on an overseas ticket is more than 75 bucks,” said Schiavo, who practices in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
If a class-action lawsuit is filed, United could probably find evidence from Web chat sites that customers misrepresented themselves, she said.
Even a passenger advocate said it was unlikely that the buyers of the supercheap tickets would prevail. Charlie Leocha, the founder of the nonprofit group Travelers United, said the fares were obviously a mistake.
“I would be surprised if DOT held United’s feet to the fire,” he said.
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