United sold thousands of first-class tickets for as little as $44—then cancelled them

Toy plane flights only?
Toy plane flights only?
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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A ticketing snafu on United Airlines allowed several thousand people to buy absurdly inexpensive first-class tickets from London to the United States yesterday—until the airline unceremoniously cancelled the fares.

The dirt-cheap flights—as little as $44 for one-way first-class tickets between London and Newark—were only available for a few hours through United’s Danish website, but that was more than enough time for travel blogs and frequent flyer discussion boards to jump all over them.

The Points Guy blog wrote:

If these fares are honored, this will likely go down as one of the best flight deals in history. I was able to buy a few flights for myself and friends. I paid $44 apiece for one-way tickets from London to Newark (which would have cost $8,700 each normally), and booked a trip for later to Australia via London in United GlobalFirst for $1,437 (which would have cost $27,947). All told, I paid $1,597 for flights that would cost $59,862 to buy with cash as of today!

United said in a statement that it decided to void the bookings of “several thousand individuals who were attempting to take advantage of an error a third-party software provider,” specifically applying an incorrect exchange rate for the Danish krone. The mistake apparently affected several airlines, but was most easily exploited on United’s Danish site.

The US department of transportation (DOT) is struggling to adapt its rules—which generally bar price increases after tickets have been paid for—to deal with online travel sites that scour airline ticketing systems for mis-priced flights. The DOT posted a notice in May (pdf, p.77) stating:

The Enforcement Office has become concerned that increasingly mistaken fares are getting posted on frequent-flyer community blogs and travel deal sites, and individuals are purchasing these tickets in bad faith and not on the mistaken belief that a good deal is now available.

United may not be in the clear quite yet. On the FlyerTalk online bulletin board where news of the cheap flights first circulated, users were advised to file a complaint with the DOT, specifically citing rule 399.88: prohibition on post-purchase price increase. “There is a very high probability that you can have your tickets re-instated if you complain to DOT,” one FlyerTalk user said, hopefully.