Can an Airline Refuse to Honor a Miles Redemption Mistake With No Published Award Charts?

You may remember 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as few as four United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles — only to have those award redemptions rescinded by United Airlines, as I reported in this article back on Monday, July 16, 2012. Customers were 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.

Can an Airline Refuse to Honor a Miles Redemption Mistake With No Published Award Charts?

“The existence of a published award chart showing more expensive prices was cited by the Department of Transportation for why United didn’t have to honor the bookings”, according to this article written by Gary Leff of View From The Wing. “Some people who booked with United for travel in the days after the glitch did get to take their trips.”

The aforementioned article from View From The Wing is in reference to Hawaiian Airlines, which mistakenly allowed members of its frequent flier loyalty program to procure reward travel for the sum of zero miles per award ticket recently — resulting in the subsequent issuance of 1,300 award tickets prior to being ultimately voided and canceled by the airline.

Hawaiian Airlines will reportedly offer 10,000 miles to each person who booked one of those award tickets. That offer may be perceived as generous — especially given that the holders of the award tickets in question suffered little harm, as technically no consideration in the form of miles was spent to originally procure those award tickets even though a sum of money in the form of taxes and fees may have been paid…

…but a question popped into my mind: if United Airlines did not have to honor the award tickets for four miles each back in 2012 primarily because the published award charts showed more prices, what would be their argument after Friday, November 15, 2019, when award charts will cease to exist because the amount of MileagePlus miles which are needed to redeem for award tickets will be priced dynamically instead of a published fixed price? Would the outcome have been different had award charts already been eliminated back in 2012?

Although most people might agree that zero miles — and even four miles, for that matter — for an award ticket might be perceived as an obvious error, what if the error was 2,000 MileagePlus miles round trip between Chicago and Denver? How about 25,000 MileagePlus miles round trip between the United States and China in economy class — or 40,000 MileagePlus miles in business class? How would anyone know that those are not simply great sales on redeeming miles for award travel?

Summary

The short answer might legally be as simple as that United Airlines has the right to implement changes to its MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program — and therefore can deny honoring award tickets which were procured due to an error…

…but what about in cases where what seems like a simple mistake could easily have occurred by intentionally deceiving customers with a “bait-and-switch” tactic, which is clearly illegal if successfully proven? That scenario is just one of many where people who originally benefit from what seems like a great deal could argue of having the mistake honored in their favor — or feel like they have been cheated if the mistake was not honored in their favor.

I would not be the least bit surprised if such a situation actually occurred in the future — but as I do not know the clear answer to my question, I will leave it to you to discuss or debate what the outcome could or should be…

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

3 thoughts on “Can an Airline Refuse to Honor a Miles Redemption Mistake With No Published Award Charts?”

  1. Robbo says:

    Their lawyers in Chicago are running around like chooks with their heads chopped off after reading this one, well done……

  2. Zafar Iqbal says:

    Reading your article has cleared me all about the Refusion of United Airlines on the Redemption of Mistake. Thanks

  3. Gary Leff says:

    DOT used to require airlines to honor mistake fares, that’s the context in which they pointed to United’s published pricing list as a reason they didn’t have to honor the 4 mile HKG deals. DOT no longer requires honoring of mistake fares, so I do not think this is an issue.

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