United Airlines Change Means They Can Ban Customers Who Complain Too Much About Delays

United Airlines has quietly made two changes to its Contract of Carriage, the document you are presumed to have agreed to when you buy a ticket.

As first reported by Zach Griff, they’ve added language to say that they will not honor mistake fares, but that if you book one and incur non-refundable costs as a result they will reimburse those costs. The airline also now says that booking flights likely to be delayed, and then complaining about the delays for compensation, is grounds to be banned from the MileagePlus frequent flyer program.

United Will Not Honor Mistake Fares

United Airlines has added language saying that they do not ‘intend’ to file tickets have a $0 or near-$0 fare, these should be considered mistakes, and they can cancel these tickets.

However if a customer buys one, and United cancels it, they’ll reimburse actual expenses incurred in reliance on the fare that was purchased. So if you have non-refundable hotel or ground transportation booked, and it is considered a ‘reasonable’ expense amount, prepare to submit your receipts.

UA does not intend to file tickets priced at a zero or close to zero fare. If an erroneous fare or a fare that is reasonably apparent as erroneous is inadvertently published for sale and a ticket is issued at the erroneous fare before it has been corrected, UA reserves the right to cancel the ticket purchase and refund all amounts paid by the purchaser or, at the purchaser’s option, to reissue the ticket for the correct fare. In this event, UA will also reimburse any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the purchaser in reliance upon the ticket purchase. The purchaser must provide receipts or other evidence of such actual costs incurred in support of any reimbursement request.

This largely describes current practice, and it is not clear why they’re adding Contract of Carriage language now. Perhaps an internal lawyer worried about their cancelling of these tickets, without having supporting language in the Contract of Carriage, could be deemed a violation of the contract.

Airlines used to regularly honor mistake fares. The Department of Transportation issued rules again ‘post-purchase price increases’ in 2012 which basically required it. However in 2015 they decided not to enforce these regulations against mistake fares, with the DOT essentially stating they would ignore their own rules to benefit the airlines.

At the time DOT said that any airline cancelling such tickets would have to cover costs consumers had incurred. So United’s language tracks with DOT guidance.

Of course, mistake fares by U.S. and European carriers are far less common than they used to be. Around a dozen years ago the Airline Tariff Publishing Company rolled out tools to flag potentially misfiled fares. At that point we mostly started seeing mistake fares from airlines who did not invest in earning to use those tools.

Ultimately, though, United defining a mistake fare as a near zero dollar fare is potentially an improvement. The implication is that a fare which is not near-zero is not a mistake fare and should be honored. So, for instance, a $1000 roundtrip business class ticket to Asia or South Africa should be considered a sale, and not one consumers should need to worry about.

Customers Who Book Flights And Then Complain About Delays Can Be Banned

United has also updated its Contract of Carriage to define “improper reservations” to include “reservations made for flights that are or likely will be delayed with the intention of making a claim against or receiving a benefit from United concerning the flight delay.”

And therefore customers who book flights likely to be delayed and then claim compensation benefits for the delay are subject to having their frequent flyer account closed and even being banned from travel on the airline.

In Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, 572 U.S. 273 (2014) the Supreme Court ruled that an airline could not be sued for a breach of good faith and fair dealing. Common law contract claims were deemed state-level claims, pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act. For the most part, airlines could only be held liable for breaches of their own terms and conditions (Contract of Carriage) for any issue involving schedules and prices – and frequent flyer programs were considered rebates against the price of airfare.

Much has changed over the years, and you can earn miles for many things other than air travel – and even redeem them for things other than air travel – so perhaps there is an opportunity to revisit the ruling.

However in the case of Rabbi Ginsberg, Northwest WorldPerks Platinum member, the airline closed his frequent flyer account and banned him from the program (forfeiting his miles and perks) claiming that he complained too much and that he strategically booked flights that would likely be oversold so that he could get bumped and receive voluntarily denied boarding compensation.

Here United is saying that they can ban a customer like Rabbi Ginsberg, as the Supreme Court said they could 9 years ago. It only took them 8 years longer to update their rules than it took American Airlines which followed the Court’s Ginsberg ruling by explicitly “disclaim[ing] any duty of good faith and fair dealing as well as any implied contractual terms or obligations.”

United’s Lawyers Seem Late To The Party

United is updating its Contract of Carriage to take advantage of a Department of Transportation position adopted in 2015 against honoring mistake fares, and a 2014 Supreme Court ruling saying airlines do not face liability for banning customers from their frequent flyer programs for complaining too much.

If an airline delays flight after flight, and a customer complains about the airline’s performance, instead of improving its performance United Airlines can – and now says it may – simply ban the customer.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. UA would have to prove intent. That’s not easy unless there’s a clear pattern.

    “with the intention of making a claim against or receiving a benefit from United concerning the flight delay.”

  2. You are misreading what a zero or near zero fare means. If you check a $1000 business class ticket, the fare is close to zero, but they add taxes and an airline fee. So that $1000 fare would be considered a mistake fare.

  3. United breaks guitars
    And drags passengers off of planes bloodied
    Disgusting airline food
    Horrible overseas call centers rotten customer service
    Am I banned yet?
    Other than that great airline!

  4. @Joe B – there are many routes where there are no or very low carrier-imposed surcharges, such as US-South America or Hong Kong flights (e.g. a Cathay Pacific LA – Hong Kong business class fare incurs a $118.30 surcharge).

  5. Contrary to popular belief, the regulatory requirement that airlines honor mistake fares is still on the books – but the DOT has said as a matter or prosecutorial discretion it will not expend resources on enforcement.

    This means that at least in theory a passenger can take an airline to small claims court. So it would seem that the new provision in the UA contract of carriage is contrary to federal law.

  6. Shouldn’t United have to publish a list of all the flights they anticipate will be delayed or canceled — otherwise, how am I supposed to know when not to complain?

    I would really love to see such a list….

  7. Meanwhile Air Canada said that 48% of their flights will be delayed like last year and customers can go suck it, and call the 800 number for rebooking that never picks up

  8. I have always wondered what would happen if you booked a very expensive pre paid stay in a resort for $1000 per night for 7 days right after booking a “mistake” fare . Who determines what is reasonable ? If I can prove that I typically book such reservations on an annual basis , wouldn’t that , for me , be reasonable?

  9. I sent two complains to AS about constant delays of their flights. At least 50% of 30 segments I’ve flown this year were delayed. Some up to an hour. Regardless of the weather, departure airport and time of the day/night.

  10. There are serial complainers within the a segment of rewards travelers egged on by online bloggers that claim you entitled to compensation for x and y oft times trivial things.

    Airlines aren’t innocent but geez flyers that score a 30,000 point AA esaver complaining for 10K points because one leg is delayed a few hours are some of the bad apples

  11. United should move to another country that doesn’t have the first amendment. They should be forced to publish a list of flights likely to be delayed and a list of reason flights were delayed in the past. Failure to execute should have consequences.

  12. jns does not understand the 1st Amendment. I am not a civics teacher so I will let him use The Googles or other internets to look up were he is mistaken regarding constitutional requirements of private business’s versus the government.

  13. @jns – “….They should be forced to publish a list of flights likely to be delayed and a list of reason flights were delayed in the past. Failure to execute should have consequences.”

    It’s been many years since I worked airline sales. In the mid 90s, D.o.T. implemented a provision that required carriers, via their CRS displays, to display the on-time percentage of individual flights. The intention was the availability of such info “at point of first contact” (typically during a customer call to reservations.) The D.o.T. did not mandate “disclosure” of the information. The mandate was for the information to be available “upon inquiry” by a customer/passenger.

    If the practice remains in effect today, I suppose this is how flyers are managing to game carriers in planning trips.

  14. First amendment this, first amendment that. Those who complain about their first amendment rights online almost NEVER have so much as the first clue what the first amendment is about.

  15. @ Gary — United should have implemented this back when certain individuals filed a complaint every time their special meal requested was not honored, all while knowing that special meals were not boarded at said airport.

  16. @Gene there was a FlyerTalk member, suspended a decade ago, who used to go around with tools to *break inflight entertainment systems* in order to claim compensation for non-working IFE. I believe he mainly flew Northwest/Continental.

  17. Gary, why are you spinning this story as United trying to ban people who complain? United isn’t banning people who complain. Instead, United is banning people who try to exploit their system to gain compensation that otherwise wouldn’t have been available to them. For example, a passenger who’s already in the airport, but notices that a flight to Europe has been on a rolling maintenance delay for several hours, and decides to book a last minute ticket at the gate with the intent to cash in on the $600 compensation required by the EU when the flight inevitably cancels. Gary, you’re literally lying to consumers by spinning this out of context. You should report facts, not attention-grabbing spinoffs.

  18. @Fake News –

    * United delays flights (their fault)
    * Customer complains about delay (reasonable)
    * That customer gets delayed on a lot by United (quite reasonable to be unhappy with United)
    * United bans that customer because they decide it’s *the customer* that is the problem

    You’re pre-supposing bad motives on the part of the customer, which United can claim but bears absolutely no burden of proof for and there’s no recourse.

  19. Click-bait, sigh. UA doesn’t say they’re banning complainers, they state that they’re banning complainers from their loyalty plan. Major difference. Falling for click-bait is quite annoying Click-bait is what a certain consumer advocate is very good at; please don’t join him.

  20. @aaway – I’m pretty sure the information on delays is still available in effect. I just checked AA, DL and UA on a random routing and if you click on details on AA it is clearly listed. For UA you click details and then a separate link for performance.. I didn’t see a link on DL’s site but sure it is available (I didn’t want to burn any more time after quickly finding it on AA and UA)

  21. I said 15 years ago I would never fly with them again and to this day I have held that promise that is the worst airline I have ever been on hands down

  22. @gary leff, if you read the language in the changes, it’s very clear that this policy is about people who “book flights likely to be cancelled”, such as on the night before a major hurricane is about to strike.

    and you’re not banned from flying, you’re banned from the loyalty program.

    i doubt they wanted to do this, someone was probably abusing it

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