Enter my UA 4-mile ‘deal’ analogy contest – win nearly enough* for a trip to Hong Kong!

My barber analogy was not airtgiht, as many commentators noted. A big failing was that I could not think of any other area in life where it is peoples’ mission to relentlessly scour a company for an error, pounce when one is found, then claim to be victimized if it is not honored, all the while pretending to be an innocent customer who just happened on a ‘deal’ that they naturally believed to be reasonable.

Something like following a clerk in a supermarket who is tasked with manually price tagging every single product, then jumping with glee when the hand slips to a wrong price, but then of course the clerk would wonder why someone was following him around, so it strains credibility.

So, readers, show your creativity and perspicacity. Submit your analogy in the comments section. Have fun with it, emphasis on creativity.

Update: to be clear, this is open to analogies suggesting why it is good OR not good to partake in this ‘deal.’ The purpose is to exchange ideas in a way that is stimulating.

The prize? Well of course it is the estimated cash value of what many have claimed to be a perfectly reasonable price for a ticket to Hong Kong: 4 miles one-way (excluding taxes and fees). Valuing United miles at a standard 1 cent/mile, the prizes are:

Grand prize: 8 cents (USD)

Runner-up: 4 cents (USD)

Prizes payable by PayPal

How will entrants be judged? Entirely subjectively. By me. Reader +1s of support for specific entrants will be considered but not definitive (too much work to try to hack-proof the system).

Entry deadline: 11:59 am EDT 20 July 2012.

*not really nearly enough for a trip to Hong Kong, unless saved for several hundred years at market interest rates.

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  • Haha, market interest is near zero right now. At the current rate of 0.20%, 500 years of compounding of the 8 cents now will yield about 22 cents…

  • @Jimmy – well, 5-year CDs are as high as 1.75% so I figure a 500-year CD must have a decent-enough rate to get that ticket price. 😉

  • Christian A

    A more appropriate analogy is a customer realizing that the self-serve checkout at Walmart has an error scanning a plasma tv which are properly marked at the shelves. Only when the customer goes to leave, the security scanners go off and the manager asks the customer for his receipt. However, since a few of the other customers ran out of the store with their TV’s before security could respond, the customer begins to complain that he is entitled to the TV because “allowing” others to get away with swiping the TV’s and not him constitutes some form of discrimination.

  • alena

    Get off your high horse. Have you not gained anything from a price mistake before?

  • @alena – we are trying to have fun and learn from debate here, if you prefer nastiness you always have a welcoming home on FlyerTalk. 😉

  • Christian A

    It’s not a price mistake…if it had been marked 4 miles or cents at every step of the transaction, it could be argued it was a price mistake. However, the only way a customer could be acting in good faith was if they were intending to pay the correct amount of miles as it was cleary marked at every step of the transaction until the final step. Otherwise, you simply knew it was an ERROR before going to the site (not mistake fare) and were not acting in good faith.

  • Lu

    At what point(miles) would you have jumped on the “deal”?

  • Ryan

    Gas station analogy is the best…Price quoted on sign says $3/gallon, I drive up and go to fill up, but the pump is programmed for $.30/gallon…i put 15 gallons in, get charged $4.50 instead of $45, I get a receipt that says that and I drive off. Now the owner, who had a camera and finds my name from the credit card I used (Amex Bus Gold cuz i get double points), calls me up and wants me to pay the full price b/c of the programming error. Even though I know it was a great deal(mistake), the higher price was quoted on the giant sign, I still get the gas for $.30/gallon and the station has to eat the cost. Not saying it is right, I’m just giving an analogy of something that really does happen.

  • @Lu – It is so rare for airlines to discount award tickets, some never discount (like Delta), others occasionally advertise fare and award specials (like United), and then there are the credit card-tied discounts such as Citi-AA and Barclays-US Air. I do not know if there is any case of an airline running a discount award sale without announcing it, so in my case, I would not have booked it without it being an advertised sale. I just do not see how it can be a good thing to deliberately try to find errors and then try to stick this cost to airlines, when I would not want something similar done to me.

    Revenue tickets are much more gray area because it can be very hard to distinguish what is intentional, and I do not have a clean position on that, it is worth thought, maybe a future post to solicit reader opinions.

  • @Ryan – I like that but it misses the same part my barber analogy misses: the premeditated attempt to specifically locate these errors and then exploit them to the extreme. If we add that you used some technology to locate vulnerable gas stations, scoured them for a defective pump, brought extra cans to fill up and called all your friends…then we are getting closer. 🙂

  • hahaha! I love this contest! I have to try to think of something. Grand prize 8 cents!!! Penny saved is penny earned. So 8 pennies earned gotta count for something!

  • Joe

    How about you pay normal price for an airline seat about 330 days in advance. You do the research and pick a great seat, then go on to book hotels, rental car, tours, etc. Then on the day of your trip an executive from United decides to take a last second weekend trip and has you involuntarily bumped from the flight because he wants your seats (for free) and it’s a fully booked flight.

  • @Joe – I hope that has not happened to you or anyone, not sure that justifies unrelated retribution beyond due compensation related to that trip.

  • Ryan

    @seth, What you are saying is you are looking for anybody committing fraud. Most error/mistake items i’ve come across and participated in have been where people happened upon the mistake. They then alert the masses to what is happening and those masses participate. They didn’t manipulate the platform so it would produce something in their favor…if they do, they are breaking several laws. I think in this instance, somebody noticed the fare as they were looking up something for a friend. One other person commented they noticed it prior to that, but thought nothing of it. Nobody was trying to manipulate United’s online system so it would spit out this rate (at least, not that we know of), it was an internal programming error done onto itself by United. To stick with your above analogy regarding the the store clerk…if the store clerk puts the wrong price on an item and you go up and buy it and pay the substantially lower price, you have not committed a crime. But if you go in and actually change the sticker price from a really cheap item to an expensive item, then try to purchase that expensive item for the cheap price, that is fraud, and you will be arrested for it. I certainly hope you are not saying that anybody that booked this purposely tricked the system and committed a fraud? Just trying to clarify what you are looking for…good topic, I like it and the prize is great as well.

  • It’s like going to the Tiffany store and finding the Villa Paloma trellis bangle, it is labeled as $1,400, and based on prices found online you see it is $1,400. The salesperson tells you it is $1,400, but when you go to check out, despite it showing the proper price for the item and subtotal, and taxes, the grand total ends up being $.04 plus taxes. You know it’s an error, but for some reason you have no morals and when the salesperson tries to correct the error you threaten to sue and file a complaint with the BBB.

    @Joe let me edit your analogy: You pay normal price for an airline seat about 330 days in advance. …. The next day United tells you that your ticket will be cancelled.

  • @Ryan – just to clarify, I am Stefan, Seth is the legendary blogger at Wandering Aramean. To your question, I am certainly not arguing that it is fraud. The system had an error and people took deliberate advantage of it when, other than the discoverer, they had no intention to book such a trip or to pay full price. Nothing fraudulent there. What I find fascinating is why people think this is ok and if there are any analogous examples in common life where something similar is widely accepted. So far I have not thought of any or seen any. The ‘mistake’ concept really only applies to the discoverer who was already intending to make such a purchase. Others catch wind and feel it is appropriate to take as much advantage for themselves as possible and also to broadcast it to others, knowing this is a mistake and that the party on the opposite end will be stuck with significant costs and put in a difficult public and consumer relations position for something it never reasonably courted or deserves. This is what fascinates me. Are airlines so special that a different moral calculus is justified? And why?

  • alena

    who prefers nastiness? You don’t need to act all high and mighty.

  • Albert Chung

    The problem with these analogies is the amount “paid”. 0 miles have been deducted from our accounts so far and only our credit cards have been charged. Not much analogies we can do that deal with cash and points. So using any of the examples above, but let’s say the item is a $400 Big Mac, receipt item shows the true price $400, subtotal shows $0.04 for the product, yet taxes of $34 was charged on the card. Store still has not charged the $0.04 for the product itself. Walmart makes an announcement over the parking lot loudspeaker asking customers to return the Big Macs or pay the full amount. But of course, there are already customers in their cars driving home, and 3 out of the 1000 that sold, are halfway eaten. TY, please paypal me!

  • jeff

    Some airlines always seem to lose money but increase the executives salary. For example, American Airlines was losing money and went bankrupt but somehow it was appropriate to raise give the CEO a pay bump.

    http://travel.usatoday.com/flights/story/2011/04/Unions-blast-American-Airlines-CEOs-compensation/46493226/1

    Anyone complaining about the moral grounds should be also complaining about this which I think is even worse than taking advantage of a price error.

  • Ryan

    My bad, Stefan…i’ve been reading so many blogs and info about this, i’m suffering from blogger deliriousness and forgot which blog I was on. I think society is engineered to try and get something for nothing. Some people value their time more than others, some people have higher ethical standards than others. It kills me when I hear of a place giving away a sandwich or something for free. They will stand in line or flock for an item that costs $2.50 (free pancakes anybody?). I never go for those. But give me a mistake fare that can possibly save me thousands of miles/$$$? Heck yeah, i’m all over it. Does united owe me? No, but i’d rather be one that says “oh, darn, they aren’t going to honor it” than be the person on the side going “i’m so stupid, they honored it and I chose to sit out”. Plus, the larger or more prominent the company, we see it as a big bad firm. Banks/credit cards, oil companies, airlines, hotels to some extent, all major targets. If this was some local mom and pop shop, most would not have blown it up.

  • @alena – if you don’t think this is a debate worth having then you don’t need to contribute. I stated my position because it would be cowardly to write about this topic without making my own position clear. Others have made fascinating arguments for and against, which I hope will help readers make their own decisions in future cases. We would all appreciate you sharing a thoughtful position as well.

  • Ari

    It’s like the dating game…you have loads of people pursuing each other’s company (sometimes obsessively). There are perks and rewards when staying loyal to a particular agent, but there can be downsides as well (ex. when attractive mistake fares pop up w/different carriers). For the very loyal, free travel is an important perk. The product is familiar, safe. But…there’s catch. As soon as the carrier wises up to your tricks and games, policies change to leave you in a confusing and indeterminate state of flux, wondering if you’ll ever get to your intended destination. It’ll all work out eventually, but only after hours of misunderstanding on the phone.

  • A friend tells me and 100 of his friends he bought a tv ONLINE priced at 1 cent at BB.com. I go to BB.com and find the same deal so I buy the tv. I’m know it’s a mistake but I’ve given BB a lot of business over the years and some times with no notice they failed to deliver what I ordered, other times they delivered a faulty product and I have spent an eternity on the phone sorting this shoddy service out.

    BB.com send me a confirmation of order/delivery but never deliver the tv and post a general update online that they made a mistake.

    Was it bad of me for ordering – me thinks not
    Was it bad of BB for not fulfilling – me thinks not

    and they all live happily ever after – The End!

  • emily

    +1 to Quickroute

  • Steve

    Ok – here goes my analogy (without using an online example):

    It’s sort of like walking down the street and seeing a big crowd of people outside a flower shop. When you stop to see what is going on, you are informed by one of the excited crowd that when you order flowers for delivery to a particular zip code in town, even though they ring up at the correct price on the register, the credit card machine charges only 8 cents plus a delivery fee and reports the transaction as paid to the register.

    Delighted at the chance to get some nearly free flowers, you hop in line, pick out some flowers, and arrange for delivery. Sure enough, you pay only 8 cents plus a delivery charge. You are ecstatic. You gamed the system, and tomorrow your girl or boyfriend is gonna get the biggest, fanciest bouquet money can buy – I mean, it’s got flowers, chocolates, a tacky mug, baloons tied to everything – the delivery guy is even going to sing a song! Might as well – since you knew everything was gonna cost 8 cents.

    Of course, before long, the merchant realizes what is happening, and stops taking orders for delivery to that zip code. What he thought was an amazing return on investment from his recently launched advertising campaign has turned out to be a glut of customers trying to take advantage of his technical malfunction. A few of the deliveries have already gone out, even.

    Now, the question is whether it would be fair for the flower seller to try to cancel all those orders, or if he should be expected to hold up his end of the deal.

    Seems to me, that if I wanted flowers and the price was marked on them, and at the register I was told what the price should be, but charged a different price, the thing to do would be to let the shop know that they have a malfunction rather than stand outside the shop and encourage everyone coming in to take advantage of the “deal”.

    Having said that, what I probably would have done is pay my 8 cents, feel a bit guilty, and find other ways to justify it. Hey, I’m only human.

  • Ken

    My analogy (all hypothetical): you call USAirways to redeem a ticket and attempt to get routed to Europe via Asia for 120,000 miles. Rep knows their geography and says it will not price out. So you hang up and try again and Hong Kong is legit. Ticket prices at, what, 120,000 miles. Soon after USAirways contacts you and says, we were wrong, we audited your award ticket and this should cost 180,000 miles, would you like to recitfy. The horror!!!!!

    As for the UA 4 mile mistake, I did not get in on the opportunity but, after much thought, I hope it sticks. If the DOT sets a precedent that this mistake can be reversed, then it could be a slippery slope -my above example coming true.

    Of course my concern that this outcome could have far reaching ramifications could be a casual slippery slope (well if UA4 miles is overturned so too could any award); However, I would like to add the thought provoking comment that Radip’s “sleazy argument post” could be interpreted as a semantic slippery slope (you can’t arbitrarilly draw the line when it is ethically okay and not okay to capitalize on a mistake fare, 4 points isn’t okay, 19,999 points isn’t okay, but 20,000 points is).
    I am by no way a fallacy expert. It is fine that you and I didn’t get in on this opportunity. What ever happens, happens. It is spilled milk.
    This was fun!!

  • James

    It’s like waiting until the girl’s too drunk…

    (Hat tip @Ari)