United to honor dirt-cheap online ticket fares

In an about-face, United Air Lines Inc. today said it has decided to honor nearly 150 dirt-cheap plane tickets that were incorrectly priced on the company's Web site late last month because of a software problem.

When the glitch first came to light last week, the Chicago-based airline said it wouldn't allow passengers to go through with the next-to-nothing fares that were inadvertently offered for international flights on Jan. 31. For example, some travelers were able to book flights from San Francisco to Paris for just $24.98.

United's initial refusal to honor the tickets was similar to the response other companies have made when technology glitches provided online shoppers with rock-bottom prices or coupons that weren't intended for widespread distribution. The most recent case occurred in late January, when Federated Department Stores Inc.'s Macys.com unit said it wouldn't honor discount coupon codes posted without authorization at several bargain-hunter Web sites (see story).

But United spokesman Chris Brathwaite said the airline changed its mind for one reason: to keep its customers happy. "Although the customers thought the fares were too good to be true, they told us they also thought the fares were legally binding," he said. "So we decided not to challenge that, even though we believe we could have legally [canceled the tickets]."

Brathwaite declined to elaborate on the software problem that led to the incorrect pricing. A total of 142 tickets were booked before the glitch was fixed. United offered customers holding the tickets several options, such as waiving all travel restrictions if they paid the lowest available standard fare instead of the faulty prices.

The customers were also given the opportunity to accept credit toward future trips, including upgrades of tickets to first-class status, according to Brathwaite. But he said the airline will leave the low-fare tickets intact if the special offers are rejected by the affected customers, which has happened in at least some of the cases.

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