You could fly from the UK to pretty much anywhere in the world in business or first class at price hovering around $100 or less.
This wasn’t a United-specific glitch, but United.com was the most common place to buy these tickets. United voided these tickets.
Thousands of Consumers Complained to the Department of Transportation
The Department of Transportation received thousands of complaints, apparently, and they’ve now ruled on whether United violated their rule against post-purchase price increase, which forbids cancelling tickets after purchase. And as I wrote that I expected, they’ve sided with United.
While the DOT promulgated a rule requiring airlines to honor tickets that have been purchased regardless of price, they don’t like that airlines have to honor tickets regardless of price — they want consumers unaware of a glitch to have tickets honored, but don’t want consumers to be able to take advantage when they’re aware of glitches.
DOT has been in the process of amending their rules to prevent requiring airlines from honoring mistake fares.
As a result, I was confident that DOT would read their rules in the manner they preferred — and let United off the hook. I considered it almost a certainty that United discussed and agreed with DOT on how to handle these tickets before they were cancelled.
How the DOT Got Around Its Requirement That Airlines Honor Purchased Tickets
The Department of Transportation has now posted its statement on the matter. (.pdf)
Their first argument is that since the purchase of travel by US consumers from a US airline between Europe and US was done by indicating a website country preference of Denmark, it was purchased ‘from a Danish website’ and thus this was not a fare marketed to US consumers. The DOT contends this means their protections don’t apply.
Here’s the money quote though:
[T]he 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.
It’s because they don’t like consumer actions that they came to this decision (‘contributed to this decision’) rather than that the rules don’t actually apply to fares ‘not marketed to US consumers’. They’ve basically given up the game here: without this contributory factor, DOT wouldn’t have viewed the rules the way that they did.
The DOT rules don’t talk about or attempt to divine consumer intentions, they are straightforward rules that an airline have to honor tickets for which they’ve taken payment.
But the DOT as much as says here that because they don’t like the consumer conduct, they don’t like the outcome their rule would imply, they’ve found a reading to allow themselves not to enforce their rules.
This New Reading of the Rules May Have Unintended Consequences
The DOT should change the rules, they shouldn’t simply ignore their rules. And the back flips they’ve gone through, contending that any inaccurate consumer information entered during the purchase process allows an airline to void a sale is troubling.
For instance, ticket prices will often vary based on country of sale. It’s far less common than it used to be, but fares requiring ticketing in-country still exist. For instance, you’ll find lower prices for travel inside Asia when booking on Asian travel sites than you often will on Orbitz or Expedia. Here consumers simply worked around the clunky United website that didn’t allow for Danish tickets to be issued without entering Denmark as the country in the consumer’s billing address.
Fuel surcharges on a ticket may be lower purchasing two one ways than a roundtrip. Is a consumer considered being less than transparent with an airline when they fail to book the roundtrip (circumventing the airline’s fare logic), entitling the airline to an add-collect at check-in when they detect the subterfuge?
I didn’t think the government should require to honor these tickets, but here I’m more concerned with the DOT’s efforts to ignore its own rules to see their desired result — and the unknown ways in which their decision will be applied in the future.