The United Airlines Award Redemption Error to China

By now, you have most likely heard about the infamous award redemption error on United Airlines which allowed its members to book premium class air travel to China and supposedly beyond for as few as four United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles — only to have those award redemptions rescinded by United Airlines, as officially announced by FlyerTalk member UA Insider. Customers will be given the choice to redeem their United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles at the regular redemption rate, or re-deposit their award redemption with all fees waived.

To complicate matters, there are reports of United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program members who have already departed and landed on flights — although the four United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles were supposedly not yet deducted from their accounts. Some FlyerTalk members believe that if those who have already traveled get to enjoy the error award redemption, then all United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program members who redeemed for this award redemption error while it was still active should be afforded the same opportunity of having their award redemptions honored.

Now there is discussion about reporting United Airlines to the United States Department of Transportation pertaining to the laws they have allegedly violated, as well as both class action and personal lawsuits.

This award redemption error has polarized the FlyerTalk community. On one side of the debate are those FlyerTalk members who staunchly believe that the error should be fully honored, while on the other side are FlyerTalk members who believe it is ridiculous for United Airlines to honor what was obviously an error: a seat in the premium class cabin which would normally cost greater than $10,000.00 for only four United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles. There are some FlyerTalk members who believe that United Airlines did the right thing by not honoring the award redemption error, while other FlyerTalk members believe that United Airlines is taking an unethical and anti-customer approach.

Then there are those who booked non-refundable hotel arrangements based on this award redemption error. While some FlyerTalk members may believe that United Airlines will honor and pay for these ancillary expenses and others may believe that United Airlines may choose instead to honor those award redemption errors on a case-by-case basis, it remains to be seen as to what action United Airlines will officially take — if they take any action at all in this particular scenario.

Let’s face it — taking advantage of an award redemption error or a “mistake” fare or rate that is officially honored practically guarantees you a story which you will most likely tell for the rest of your life. It is exciting. The adrenaline rush combined with the spontaneity of taking a sudden unplanned journey can be amazing — but is it immoral or classless to take advantage of such a deal?

My answer is no. Sitting in a seat in the premium class cabin aboard an aircraft when you paid for a seat in the economy class cabin is considered immoral and classless — and many FlyerTalk members even consider it stealing from the airline. However, if the airline, lodging company, rental car company or other company chooses to officially honor the error, then it is legitimately yours to enjoy. In the case of an egregious error such as this one by United Airlines, it would be logical to expect that the error would not be honored — and rightfully so.

There have been error fares and rates honored in the past on FlyerTalk which were obvious and not so obvious. There have been justifications by FlyerTalk members that they represent only a small percentage of the customer base and therefore their taking advantage of an error will not have much of an impact on the company which mistakenly offered the error. There have even been justifications that policies implemented and enforced by companies such as airlines are one-sided and error fares and rates give the customer a small yet rare advantage of which they should take.

Whether or not you want to take advantage of error fares or rates in the future is a personal decision. However, if you decide to do so, you may want to follow these suggested guidelines:

  • Act quickly, as the error can be rescinded at any time. Some errors last for days; others can disappear within an hour. Historically, error fares and rates have been refunded without penalty if you cannot travel — and some of them are so inexpensive that you can simply skip travel with little loss. Book now and worry later.
  • NEVER book non-refundable reservations based on the error fare or rate — at least, until you know that it will officially be honored. Yes, you want to score the trifecta of the most inexpensive airfare, hotel room rate and rental car rate possible and save a lot of money, but if you rush into booking those non-refundable reservations before you find out that the error fare or rate will not be honored after all, you will most likely risk either be stuck with paying for a hotel room which you will never have used, or you will be forced to pay regular rates with frequent flier loyalty program miles or cash to get to your destination.
  • Be determined. It can take a while to search and find the error fare or rate for which you are searching — but you may not have much time. As I previously said, book now and worry later.
  • Be flexible. Expect that the error fare or rate will not be available for the ideal days on which you wish to travel. Try to be as flexible as possible by being available for as many days as possible.
  • Keep expectations low. Expect that the error fare or rate will not be honored at all. At worst, you will not be disappointed — much, anyway. At best, the error fare or rate will be either partially or completely honored.
  • Be patient. DO NOT CALL THE COMPANY WHICH ISSUED THE ERROR FARE OR RATE! This cannot be stressed enough. If you have a question about your reservation, wait until after the error fare or rate is definitely being officially honored and after the error fare or rate is no longer available — otherwise, you jeopardize your chance of taking advantage of your rare find, as well as potentially ruining the chances of fellow FlyerTalk members to take advantage of the error fare or rate as well.
  • Do not be greedy. Do you really need to take twenty round-trip flights to Sri Lanka?

FlyerTalk members have even been able to earn frequent traveler loyalty program miles or points on some error fares and rates, which is a nice added bonus — as well as secure upgrades and score other benefits and perks.

Error fares and rates are rare — and these days, they are rarer than ever. Whether or not you decide to take advantage of them is up to you. I am not advocating or endorsing that you do take advantage of them — as I said before, that is a personal decision. However, if you are fortunate enough to take advantage of one, then enjoy the ride.

What are your thoughts on what is becoming the United Airlines award redemption error debacle? Please post your thoughts in the Comments area below.

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Comments (Showing 2 of 2)

  • chinatraderjmr at 6:23am July 18, 2012

    Is it wrong to take advantage of such fares? Certainly not. But what’s wrong is that when these fares are not honored, some people insist on dragging the airline thru the mud, thru the courts, thru the DOT, etc when most people knew this was a mistake to begin with. What’s wrong with taking such a strong stance? We risk a chance that some airlines will fill their FF Programs with new restrictions that can negatively impact many members. As an example, UA allows me to book an award ticket for tonight if I need to. Most people pay a nominal fee for this while Elites have fees waved. What happens if UA comes out because of these mistakes with new rules prohibiting same day or close in ticketing (so they have time to review fares and routes for mistakes before issuing a ticket). This would really hurt many members who make last minute plans or changes. However, if these rules were put in place, airlines would be able to discover these mistakes before tickets are issued. If we plan to give the airlines a hard time, we should expect to get a hard time right back

  • kvs25 at 2:05pm July 18, 2012

    why is that if I make a mistake when buying a ticket, I have to pay for my mistake? But when they do it, they can get away with it?

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