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United Website Error Creates First-Class Deals

Mistakes happen. But one United Airlines glitch recently allowed some frequent fliers to redeem as few as four miles — plus pay about $40 in taxes — for a first-class roundtrip ticket to Hong Kong.

A passenger checks in at a United Continental Holdings Inc. kiosk.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A passenger checks in at a United Continental Holdings Inc. kiosk.

The error happened on United's website, where frequent flier award tickets purchased to Hong Kong — no matter the class of service — were deducting only four miles from member accounts. Normal redemption rates for a roundtrip ticket vary from a low of 65,000 miles for economy, to 140,000 for first class at its lowest "saver" level.

United acknowledged its mistake for the first time publicly last week. The airline posted a response on the popular frequent flier forum Flyertalk.com, calling it a "programming error," as well as noting the error had been corrected.

For customers who only had four miles deducted, a United spokesman initially told the USA Today they would have the option of taking their trip at the actual, higher mileage level, or canceling the trip for a full refund of taxes, along with putting their miles back into their accounts without penalty. United declined to disclose how many customers made reservations at the low level of miles.

But some passengers had already begun traveling on their tickets purchased with only four miles. By late Thursday last week, United issued another statement saying it would honor tickets at the lower mileage level if travel was ticketed to begin on or before July 21.

Some travel experts argued that United was going against a new Transportation Department regulation that bans post-purchase price increases of airline tickets unless it is a result of an increase in government-imposed taxes.

But United clarified that unlike other “mistake fares,” the number of miles required for these awards was clearly disclosed to customers throughout the MileagePlus award redemption process.

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