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The DOT Will NOT Force United to Honor $50 First Class Fare Mistakes

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The DOT issued a statement today stating that they will not make United honor the incredible $50 first class fares we saw almost two weeks ago. The statement reads as follows:

“After a careful review of the matter, including the thousands of submissions from consumers and information from United, the Enforcement Office has decided that it will not take action against United for not honoring the tickets. The mistaken fares appeared on a website that was not marketed to consumers in the United States. In order to purchase a ticket, individuals had to go to United’s Denmark website which had fares listed in Danish Krone throughout the purchasing process. In addition, only people who identified “Denmark” as their location/country where billing statements are received when entering billing information at the completion of the purchase process were able to complete their purchase at the mistaken fare levels. Consistent with the Office’s treatment of fare advertisements and disclosure of baggage fees, it does not intend to enforce the rule in question (the post-purchase price increase prohibition) when the fare offer is not marketed to consumers in the United States. Additionally, the 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.”

United confirms the ruling here.

DOT SEAL-BLUE 286

My Thoughts

With all mistake fares, it’s best to understand before purchasing that the fare may or may not be ultimately honored. Personally, I haven’t yet made any travel arrangements around my mistake fares, and I’d recommend that others who got in on this fare do the same. You win some, you lose some—and then you move on and wait for the next big deal, acknowledging that it was a fun rush while it lasted.

That being said, the DOT is setting an interesting precedent here, stating that that flights “marketed” to foreigners don’t seem to fall under their jurisdiction. This seems to directly contradict their provision 399.88(a), which only specifies that a flight needs to operate to or from the United States. From the description of this provision:

“It is an unfair and deceptive practice within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. 41712 for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, or of a tour (i.e., a combination of air transportation and ground or cruise accommodations), or tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that includes scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation, tour or tour component to a consumer, including but not limited to an increase in the price of the seat, an increase in the price for the carriage of passenger baggage, or an increase in an applicable fuel surcharge, after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of an increase in a government-imposed tax or fee. A purchase is deemed to have occurred when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer.”

The DOT has also clearly ruled that buying the ticket in Danish Kroner and “manipulating” the billing information are signs of bad faith. Last I checked, it was not illegal to have a billing address outside of the US for a credit card, and buying airfare in other currencies is not manipulation. Go to any airline website right now and try to book a flight leaving France, and chances are the price will originate in Euros. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be illegal (or immoral) to try and book a flight in another currency that better favors your bank account.

If an airline or bank is concerned about people using wrong addresses, the transactions should be immediately declined. However, if their systems aren’t sophisticated enough to validate an address, I suggest they invest in better technology or “third party vendors” to avoid something like this in the future.

United will NOT not be honoring the cheap fares to London.
United will NOT not be honoring the cheap fares to London.

I followed up with the DOT to see if:

1) US travelers who purchase flights marketing outside the US or purchase flights in other currencies are still covered by their jurisdiction and protections;

2) If United checked and got approval with the DOT before canceling the fares.

Overall, this isn’t the end of the world, but it does cause some concern that airlines have gained a whole lot of wiggle room to use against consumers, even when it isn’t a mistake or “third party error”.

What are your thoughts?

See also: Do Airlines Have to Honor Mistake Fares?