Social Media Goes Nuts over United's $5 and $10 Airfares UPDATE: United will Honor the Fares

UPDATE – Sept. 13: A spokesperson for United Airlines just told FareCompare the airline will honor the super-cheap tickets issued yesterday and here is the quote: “We’ve reviewed the error that occurred yesterday and based on these specific circumstances, we will honor the tickets.” You can see more on the airline’s  official Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Sept. 12: For a brief period today, Facebook, Twitter and more lit up with news about United’s too-good-to-be true fares to destinations all over the U.S. for a paltry $5 or $10. As airfare analyst Rick Seaney said, “People were buying tickets all over the place; guys were buying 12 and 15 of these things from Washington, D.C. and Honolulu.”

And of course, they were too good to be true. But could these fares be honored anyway? At the moment, it’s not entirely clear.

What Happened

“I suspect there was an internal, back-end filing glitch or test gone amok,” said Seaney. “These dirt-cheap prices appear to be related to the mistaken offering of free award redemption prices with the mandatory Sept. 11 security fee of $2.50 per wheels-up on an itinerary (with a maximum of $10 per trip).”

He added that this does not appear to be a classic airfare mistake in which “wrong” numbers are filed; in fact, Seaney confirmed that no $0 fares were filed today – not by United nor were any of these super-deals available through FareCompare distribution partners such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz.

Flyers Snap Up Incredible Bargains

Social media spread the word about these incredible bargains while the website FlyerTalk was positively giddy. One of its members crowed about scoring a round-trip flight from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis (for travel less than two weeks from now) at a cost of just $7.50 total. The same flight is currently being offered for $900. Said airfare analyst Seaney, “I imagine the CEO of United is asking how come everyone on Twitter knew about this before the airline did internally?” The dirt-cheap fares appeared to be available for at least an hour or hour-and-a-half starting just before noon eastern time today. The big question is, will the United honor these tickets?

Will United Honor These Fares?

FareCompare contacted United about this and here’s what they had to say:  “We are in the process of evaluating this and as always we will do what is appropriate.” Rick Seaney cautioned ticket holder not to get their hopes up. “It might be a great PR exercise to honor these fares, but if tens of thousands of them were purchased, who knows.” However, he also noted this kind of situation appears to be addressed in a 2012 Department of Transportation document though it leaves a lot open to interpretation. Here’s a Q&A section from the document:

Q: Does the prohibition on post-purchase price increases in section 399.88(a) apply in the situation where a carrier mistakenly offers an airfare due to a computer problem or human error and a consumer purchases the ticket at that fare before the carrier is able to fix the mistake?

A: Section 399.88(a) states that it is an unfair and deceptive practice for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, or of a tour or tour component that includes scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation to a consumer after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of a government-imposed tax or fee and only if the passenger is advised of a possible increase before purchasing a ticket. A purchase occurs when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer. Therefore, if a consumer purchases a fare and that consumer receives confirmation (such as a confirmation email and/or the purchase appears on their credit card statement or online account summary) of their purchase, then the seller of air transportation cannot increase the price of that air transportation to that consumer, even when the fare is a mistake.

A contract of carriage provision that reserves the right to cancel such ticketed purchases or reserves the right to raise the fare cannot legalize the practice described above. The Enforcement Office would consider any contract of carriage provision that attempts to relieve a carrier of the prohibition against post-purchase price increase to be an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 41712.

Did you snag one of these tickets? Let us know.

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Published: September 12, 2013