The Final Word on the 4-Mile United Award Tickets To and Through Hong Kong

United (and I would imagine collaboratively with the Department of Transportation) have come up with an interesting solution.

  • They will allow anyone with travel commencing by July 21 to fly.
  • They will allow anyone who had the ‘usual’ number of miles deducted from their account to cancel for a full refund without penalty.
  • They are cancelling all reservations that were booked without the full normal mileage cost deducted where travel begins after July 21.

The DOT has to stand by its regulations, which forbid cancelling tickets and raising price after ticketing under most circumstances.

The DOT has now even said their rules apply to frequent flyer award tickets.

And yet it wasn’t really something that United owed its customers, to fly them in many cases in last seat inventory and in first class to Hong Kong, and sometimes even beyond in first class on partners.

I say that even as the person who first publicized this error in North America. (Which I know angers some, I’ve gotten a few nasty messages over my willingness to admit that the 4 mile price was a mistake, saying I should contend it could have been a flash sale.)

So United maintains that the correct pricing was displayed throughout the booking process, and is posted prominently on its website. Thus there was no deceptive pricing.

Folks who had the right number of miles in their accounts paid that normal price. Folks who didn’t have the usual number of miles in their accounts didn’t actually have ANY miles withdrawn (the 4 miles per person were never even debited).

United is cancelling the tickets FOR NON-PAYMENT, which is permitted under DOT rules. No deception, and not raising the price after booking.

This allows United to not honor the mistake, and the DOT rules to be affirmed in the process.

Some might even call it a ‘Marbury Moment’ for the FOT — acceptance of their rules while letting the airline off the hook in this instance.

The only piece that’s been problematic, truly, is the way United handled this with its customers — no direct word to anyone for about 5 days, postings on Milepoint and Flyertalk (notably not on this blog where the fare originated), and ultimately going back on its initial statement that folks who paid less than the normal price would be given an opportunity to pay full price for their itinerary if they wished. Most wouldn’t. Probably no one would.

But not communicating for several days and not handling things in the manner they stated publicly that they would is problematic. It’s a misdemeanor at worst, and this one was a bit of a novel situation given new DOT rules.

That this happened in the first place reflects badly on United’s already atrocious IT. That they took so long to communicate reflects badly on their service. In the end though I don’t think anyone got materially less than they deserved.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] it. As far as this post is concerned, the important take away from those conversations was that DOT rules do apply to frequent flyer award tickets. United was able to cancel the Hong Kong tickets on a technicality since the 4 miles weren’t […]


  1. I always contended that I didn’t think United should honor the mistake. I bought one without any moral reservations about it. And, yes, I’m disappointed that I won’t be flying first class to Hong Kong in the spring. But they canceled, and I’m fine with that as I think it was the right thing to do.

    I don’t quite understand this non-payment issue though. That makes it sound like we who purchased it were unwilling and refused to pay the price of the ticket. I know the 4 miles were never deducted from my account, but beyond simply agreeing to the bill that is out of my control. Isn’t non-payment more United’s fault than mine?

  2. “That this happened in the first place reflects badly on United’s already atrocious IT. That they took so long to communicate reflects badly on their service. In the end though I don’t think anyone got materially less than they deserved.”

    I agree with the last sentence.

    The first 2 sentences – 1) things go wrong and 2) they did notify people a few days ago – they just took a few more days to cancel peoples flights.

    All’s well that ends FAIRLY! 🙂

  3. I once booked a US Airways award ticket and they never deducted my miles. I still flew. It wasn’t my fault they never took my miles. The fact that the miles never came out of the MP account seems to fall under the category of “Not my problem”

  4. What do you mean no communication from United “for several days”? I’ve still heard nothing directly from United, and I purchased this fare with real miles and real money for taxes/fees.

  5. It depends on what DOT’s definition of non-payment is. I would hope it’s intention was non-payment caused by the consumer’s end e.g. bad credit card # or insufficient credit line on the credit card. In this instance, it was incomplete payment caused by the merchant’s end i.e. United should have deducted the 4 miles but didn’t.

    Would also like to point out one could argue there was not FULL disclosure of potential price increase. There may have been SOME disclosure i.e. award chart as well as United’s claim that the “correct” amount was listed throughout the redemption process. However, absent of fine print stating something along the lines of “By redeeming this award, United reserves the right to charge the full intended amount of miles per our award chart anytime prior to boarding” I would not consider United having provided FULL disclosure of potential price increase.

    Just playing Devil’s advocate here – my point is the language of the DOT rules as well as the intention of the DOT rules.

  6. Cancelling for “non-payment” is just the method their legal team came up with to avoid any conflicts with the regs. How often have you seen United issue e-ticket numbers and confirmations for reservations that weren’t paid for? It is a word game and apparently the DOT is letting them get away with it.

    I am not surprised these were not honored but I agree that the way it was handled by United leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It seems like it was CYA the whole way for them with little regard for keeping customers informed. I am more annoyed by how many $150 change fees I’ve paid over the years for mistakes I’ve made but that the airline is not held to the same standard. If the tables were turned and I grossly overpaid for an itinerary United would be taking every fee they could when I cancelled.

    I think it is a loss for the DOT as well – couldn’t all mistake fares be construed as a “nonpayment” of the correct fare? Keep in mind taking any miles out of my account (which United owns!) is solely United’s responsibility and my credit card was charged.

  7. The “Non-payment” excuse may not stand for those who have the “correct” amount of miles CHARGED. Transaction happened and completed. People got charged More than receipt shows. Even trying to cancel now, it only shows “4 miles”…

  8. dot response this morning: “We will continue to investigate this matter to determine the full price of these tickets, whether that full price was, in fact, paid by the consumers, whether the airline issued tickets upon full payment, and whether the carrier raised the price after full payment was made and the tickets were issued.”

    that means united acted before the dot made a decision which is stupid. basically, the story goes on, and there is still hope for everyone who bought a ticket.

  9. Well, I’m guessing this won’t be your final word on this Gary because — to my surprise, and apparently yours — there doesn’t actually seem to be an “understanding” between the DOT and UA about the validity of these tickets. See the letter one customer received from the DOT, which indicates that they’re still deciding what to do. This also explains the “non apology” letter ticketholders received from UA yesterday (basically implying that they — and not UA — made the mistake!).

    I think we generally see eye-to-eye on this matter and it’s hard to honestly claim that we really “deserve” these tickets under the circumstances (obvious error that every buyer knew or should have known was a mistake). But the DOT seems to at least be considering the idea of adopting an expansive interpretation of their rules and toasting UA with it. So it seems like the matter is definitely not over yet.

  10. gary – as it seems that the DOT and United have not reached an agreement, would you consider filing a DOT complaint to preserve your rights? or is it the case that if the DOT decides to force them to honor, that will apply to all (even those who didn’t complain)?

  11. @m – I wouldn’t worry about it, let others do it and if DOT rules in their favor you’ll get what they get (or at least could file at that time if you wished).

  12. “The only piece that’s been problematic, truly, is the way United handled this with its customers — no direct word to anyone for about 5 days, postings on Milepoint and Flyertalk (notably not on this blog where the fare originated)”

    UA couldn’t tell us what they were going to do at first. The DOT has the ability to fine UA thousands of dollars PER PERSON, and until they were reasonably sure this wouldn’t happen, they couldn’t decide what to do. I find it humorous that you think they should have posted a response on your blog. Gary, I love you man, and you have helped me earn at least 4 FC r/t T/A tickets, and counting. But surely you must realize UA had good reason to be truly ticked off at you for, as far as I know, personally starting this firestorm with your post. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have done that, just that you should have expected UA would not look kindly on you for it.

    Since the only people who got in on this were the ones reading travel blogs, a single post on Flyertalk was going to be reposted on all of the blogs, just as the original mistake fare was. No need to email everyone. And no, they didn’t feel they “owed” you a post on your blog for doing them the “favor” of posting this mistake fare. 🙂

    If I was UA, I wouldn’t send out personal emails either. The way our litigious system works, you can be sued for huge amounts of “damages”, when you didn’t actually do anything wrong, if you simply misstate why you did what you did. Why open themselves to a further possibility of class action losses?

    Everyone involved knew it was a mistake, and everyone knew the odds of this going thru were low. Now everyone knows that, as they suspected at the time, UA is not going to give out millions of miles worth of basically free tickets. As much as I dislike UA, I think they handled this as well as I could expect. Case closed.

    Now let’s resume looking for the next great CC bonus offer so we can still fly FC for free, without using this underhanded way of doing it.

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