The UA ‘deal’ is sleazy – should I stiff my barber for 14 cents, too?

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“You’re all set, see you next time, kid.” Just as he has said for the past 20 years.

The aged barber shuffles over to the mechanical cash register, slowly pushing the buttons. Instead of $14, up comes $0.14.

Should I:

a) Jump up and down shouting, “Ha ha, screw you, here’s your 14 cents!” And then next time show up expecting to cut in line, get a warm towel for my face, hot coffee, and a nice, safe haircut?

b) Shrug it off, joking, “Still fast on the trigger, pardner, here’s the $14.”

Reading about the United Airlines 4 mile one-way award trips to Hong Kong yesterday was fun, I even joked about it on twitter since the number 4 is inauspicious in China and that it would actually be something I have enough United miles for, but thinking it over last night, this one crosses the line for me.

There seem to be two strains of rationalization:

1. The “airline companies are big faceless corporations, which makes it okay” rationalization popularized in a classic Simpsons episode about stealing cable. This case with United is not stealing, but the rationalization is the same.

2. The airlines are implicitly in a wink-wink game with customers, each trying to outwit the other. Airlines impose many restrictions and penalties related to the services they provide, so it is only fair for customers to try to game the system back. Airlines know this and implictly tolerate it as somehow contributing to customer loyalty and their long-term bottom line.

I don’t buy either.

Rationalization 1 falls down because there is no justifiable way to draw the line. I am not going to stiff my barber. How big and ‘faceless’ is needed for a company to be fair game? Many of the people booking these tickets are probably small business owners that would be aghast if their customers nailed them over an obvious error.

Rationalization 2 I do not have any insight into the internal machinations of airlines. Do they think this is all a fun game, and more importantly, have they made this explicit to their customers? The issue here is that, however flawed, the US airlines in particular have moved to tremendous openness. How would this go if in response they announced that award bookings are now only bookable by phone or subject to 72-hour audit review before issuance?

I lived in China for eight years, it is a wonderful place is many ways, yet is filled by consumers who seek to game the system in every conceivable way. The result? Try returning something to a store.

Closer to home, every morning in my commute on the PATH train to World Train Trade Center, I pass through a station with one turnstile large enough for luggage. This turnstile is slow to close so people do not get crunched. What happens? People try to sneak in behind a paid traveler. The result? A PATH employee is now dedicated during rush hours to watch the turnstile and check swipes rather than help riders; when not available to monitor, the employee turns off the turnstile and trots out an “out of order” sticker.  What a delight when I am heading to the airport with a rollerboard or for parents with baby strollers.

The thing about this ‘game’ is customers expect it to be one-way, especially the elite status customers. Late for my flight? Put me on the next. Bad weather? Do something about it. Unhappy about a fee? Make an exception to keep my ‘loyalty.’

I don’t think the customer would be laughing next time trying to check a bag 59 minutes ahead of departure and told, “We have a 60-minute rule, no exceptions to our rules, as you know from your recent trip to Hong Kong.”

The most preposterous aspect of this whole matter is the ritual trotting out of the argument that United should honor the tickets for the sake of ‘customer loyalty’ or at least to make some reparation if they don’t. There cannot be a single person booking these tickets that thought it was not a mistake, heck the same screen that displayed the mistake price even displayed the correct price above. If honored, that ‘customer loyalty’ will last exactly until the next interaction with United, when the sense of righteous self-entitlement wells up afresh.

Ethically, this one is so clearly an error, and so egregious, that for me, however fun it would have been to play it like a video game, I draw the line. I want the airlines to treat me fair when I mess up or need help (which they do not always do), and I want them to be more and more open with their tools. The openness that makes booking easier for all travelers is the same that allows for these public mistakes. If cutting them some slack on the occasional error is the tradeoff for 24/7 online booking, I think that is fair. If, like China, the population trying to game the system grows large, airlines will react correspondingly, and everyone loses.

If United chooses to honor these tickets, enjoy the trip, I studied in Hong Kong and it is one of my favorite destinations, even try my 24 Hours in Hong Kong Itinerary or get out to Hong Kong’s splendid outlying islands and nature trails. Or spend the time doing charity work in exchange for the gift of the trip. A United fliers charity campaign in Hong Kong would actually be of value to the community and trade good publicity for honoring the fares.

If they don’t honor the tickets, move on. It is a tortuous route to argue that the customer has the moral high ground on this one, not even 4 inches worth, let alone 4 miles.

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Hayden
Guest

Great write-up!

It’s quite funny what people feel that they can get away with.

Thanks for sharing

Hayden @ FlymeFunky.com

Cory
Guest
Cory

@RTC on your reply to Jerry you said, “One difference, is would a novice traveler who happened to be searching for a RGN trip then or a HKG trip last Sunday have the same reaction, in essence a ‘reasonable person’ test.” I know what you’re saying, and to bolster your argument further….in the case of the HKG trip on Sunday I don’t think the novice traveler searching for that trip would have gotten far enough to see the 4 mile price. If they have enough miles to even contemplate booking a ticket in any class of service, especially in 1st… Read more »

Cory
Guest
Cory

It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Cruel and unforgiving.

To paraphrase and amend the great Norm Peterson from Cheers, one of us (Ticket purchasers or United) is going to be wearing Milkbone underwear.

Phil
Guest
Phil

I have already had the experience of being at an airport 59 minutes before departure with a 60 minute cut off and told that sorry I was too late. My barber is a good friend I’d never screw over in fact I always tip handsomely. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been screwed by an airline. So irregardless of where you sit on this, I fail to see the intellect or thoughtfulness of this post. More like moral rambling …..

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Phil – in your spectrum from ok to screw in any way airlines (because of past, unrelated experiences) to the barber you won’t screw, where and how in the middle do you draw the line? Hotels? Restaurants? Clients? Colleagues? To me, this is an interesting, challenging debate and I welcome your thoughtfulness.

Jerry
Guest
Jerry

… but let me do add, RTC, that I respect your opinion, and I thank you for going against all of the other bloggers. I’ve added your blog to my reader – keep up the good work.

Jerry
Guest
Jerry

Quite honestly, I really do believe that the majority of people who are preaching from alleged moral high ground are sitting on a big pile of sour grapes. “This is awful,” “you’re taking advantage of the airline,” “you’re making it harder for people who play by the rules”, and so on. How is this any different from taking advantage of a $300 mistake fare to RGN (or however much it was), or even credit card churning? The extent, of course, but that’s really it. If everyone started churning cards like those who are really into travel hacking, they’d change the… Read more »

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Jerry – thank you for sharing your opinion. When it comes to ethics, it is trite but correct to say there are no easy answers. The RGN thing I need to look at it more detail, I did not follow it closely at the time. One difference, is would a novice traveler who happened to be searching for a RGN trip then or a HKG trip last Sunday have the same reaction, in essence a ‘reasonable person’ test. In the UA case the correct price is displayed all the way through, even on the final screen that also showed the… Read more »

colpuck
Guest
colpuck

Not only should this fare be honored but we have a moral obligation to see that it is honored. First, is this ticket “fair?” Easy answer no. Did I know UA screwed up when they issued the ticket, yes. Does any of that matter, of course not. There is an unequal power relationship between United and the person who buys a ticket from United. The passenger must abide by the contract of carriage which they can not change. The passenger can not negotiate price, nor changes in the flight schedule. In short, United has all the power in the dealing… Read more »

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[…] well-stated argument. The analogy's a bit off, but still worth reading. The UA ‘deal’ is sleazy – should I stiff my barber for 14 cents, too? Great comment, this: […]

Tania P.
Guest
Tania P.

Perfect post and a good lesson about where/when to cross the line. For me the worst part is the time people spend talking/complaining/whinning about UA on FT/MP. I know miles is a passion for some, but some people need to have some balance on their lifes.

Million Mile Secrets
Guest

An outstanding, well-reasoned, and thoughtful post. Thanks for setting the standard for the rest of us.

aadvantagegeek
Guest
aadvantagegeek

If they gave out a Pulitzer Prize for best travel blog post, this would surely deserve it.

Well done RTC.

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@aadvantageekl – I don’t know the emoticon for blushing. 🙂

HikerT
Guest
HikerT

Kudos to you Rapid Travel Chai for calling this one out for what it is. Sad to see so few taking the high road on this one.

KateFromCA
Guest
KateFromCA

Right on. I, for one, was on my laptop reading about this “deal” as it was happening and decided not to jump in (no Monday morning quarterbacking here).

Many of us are getting half a dozen or more free tickets a year from credit card sign up bonuses and shopping via portals for stuff we would buy anyway, but 4 miles for a first class ticket? Why? Don’t we have enough miles we got for (almost) nothing, already? We won’t this thing to last, right?

matt
Guest
matt

It’s quite impressive the level of acrimony this is generating.

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@matt – It’s like I am FlyerTalk for a day. 😉 I think it strikes a nerve because people want the prize but don’t necessarily want to take a hard look at the implications, which leads to inflamed passions and rationalizations.

jorgeluis500
Guest
jorgeluis500

Although I agree with the post, I also think the barber example is not the best one.

If I could have jumped in, I’d have done it too but without any expectation, let alone any thought of suing or any other crazy thing. If they decide not to honor it, fine although they could try to get some PR from it.

Barry
Guest
Barry

We expect people to have an ethical imperative to treat each other with decency… but there is no such requirement for corporations to treat people the same way. A corporation’s structure insulates shareholders owners from moral issues. I think “faceless corporation” doesn’t just mean “I can’t see who I’m hurting by stealing from them”… it also means “this corporation would steal from me, given the chance, because it ISN’T A PERSON”. Consider a corporation that treats its owners, employees, and customers fairly (Costco springs to mind, as well as my credit union), and you’ll find far fewer customers looking to… Read more »

andrew
Guest
andrew

I agree with your post, but would like to say this: Back when I was in college (1983) I worked part time in the shoe section at Mervyn’s department store in San Diego. We had a type of sports shoe that normally retailed for approx US$45, but unnoticed by us prior to putting out the boxes on the floor display, several boxes were marked at US$20. Even as the correct price was displayed on the register, we had honor the price on the box, since that is what the customer was led to believe the price was going to be,… Read more »

Boilers
Guest
Boilers

I agree and like the post. I am disappointed in United but this is not the way to solve the issues.

Brian Cohen
Guest
Brian Cohen

I would have liked to have discussed this one over sushi with you, Rapid Traveler.

Without offering an opinion of my own pertaining to the topic itself, you have succinctly and clearly stated your point of view in a thoughtful manner. This is an excellent entry which you have added to your weblog. Well done!

Anonymous Flyer
Guest
Anonymous Flyer

I thought people taking advantage of this mistake was horrible. That is why I called United and let them know. Within minutes, the bloggers were complaining about the “deal” being over.

Yoshinoya
Guest
Yoshinoya

I appreciate the post, and I agree. A few more of these, and the award system will change…no stopovers or open jaws, and eliminate any generous UA or US award routing rule currently in place, a la going to Asia across the Atlantic. It will become priced on a per-segment basis, like BA Avios. I think UA should go further, and just keep all the miles from the standard bookings (at most 160K per ticket), and charge change fees to cancel. If accts didn’t have enough miles, make accts have a negative mileage balance with the option to cancel or… Read more »

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

@Rapid Travel Chai- Its not fair to make a long blog entry railing against an expected reaction. Especially if you don’t even expect the reaction to be from mainstream ppl as opposed to a few wing nuts.

Let’s see what happens…

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Jeff – I handled my reply inelegantly, so will reiterate my core argument that this ‘deal’ crosses the line for me. I did not hear about it until too late to partake anyway so by some observer’s criteria my opinion is irrelevant, but for what it is worth, would not have booked it. I do not see any of the rationalizations as justification for booking something to screw the airline and hope it gets honored just to avoid some PR backlash. I do not handle my personal or business dealings in that way. The reaction is indeed predictable on the… Read more »

HC
Guest
HC

Yeah, Mike is really on his soapbox, high horse, or whatever you want to say. I liked this blog entry, I think it was well thought out and a good discussion of the issues involved. Thank you for not being like Mike and taking to the pulpit and turning all sanctimonious on us. This reminds me a little bit of the 83,000 AA miles for buying one of those pucks to recharge a phone from Verizon. I think there were even suits filed. That is all way over the line of rational behavior from my perspective. As I see it,… Read more »

Matt
Guest
Matt

@RTC – It was aimed at Mike and the many others I see playing “holier than thou” across FT, Dans Deals and the blogs and saying people who booked a ticket lack morals.

People on the internetz are funny like that with their grand judgments.

I booked a trip. Would it be awesome to go to HK? Sure. Am I going to flip out and sue if they cancel the ticket? Nope. Que sera sera.

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Matt – thanks for the follow-up, I am not good at following the forums so have not seen it all play out beyond some of the blog posts I have read.

‘Que sera sera’ indeed seems the best approach.

Lindsay
Guest
Lindsay

Since March 3, United has done everything possible to indicate that they are no longer interested in customer loyalty. I can’t imagine that they would choose to start now by honoring a 4 cent ticket.

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Lindsay – take it from an ex-NWA flyer/nwa.com aficionado: it gets worse in year 2 when they even stop sending the “thanks for bearing with us emails.” Delta hasn’t even run a decent mileage promotion since then.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

I happen to agree that is NOT REASONABLE to EXPECT United to honor these. For the few people who already started their itinerary I would say that is really sleazy. It is obvious they booked a flight leaving immediately because they did not expect the ticket to be honored. The same goes for any troll out there who is threatening to sue. I think everyone would agree that they are a complete pig. HOWEVER, United did not render any services at all for the rest of us, and since no one seriously expects the free flight or stands to lose… Read more »

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Jeff – Many good points and thank you for taking the time to write in such depth. I have a bit of trouble with basing a company’s policy entirely on one quote in the WSJ, when no official policy says this, but that is why I noted in the article that this is a possibility for United’s approach to mistake fares. My argument is less about the fun of gambling, if indeed people expect it not to be honored, but it is about the preposterous outrage that will inevitably follow if they do not, as if it is unethical for… Read more »

William
Guest
William

@mike – to suggest people are immoral based off this single topic is pretty ignorant. … everything in this world is perception based, so as much as what you say some people are doing is immoral, there is going to be someone telling you that something your doing is immoral, so who are you to call anyone out on their decisions, especially by being so rude about it… For example, in one comment you wrote I saw that you said you would continue using some of the bloggers advice and info but would look at them totally different now. Now… Read more »

Mikes
Guest
Mikes

+1

One more following on twitter too. I get there about twice a month, but it’s the thought that counts right? 🙂

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Milkes – well, until last week I got to twitter about once a quarter, but am trying as a blog year two resolution. I have still RSS and even old-fashioned email feeds if you would like to follow.

Matt
Guest
Matt

I think it’s hilarious seeing people judge others’ morals based on whether or not they got in on this deal or not (especially watching those who didn’t get in on it moralize but then state that they woulda-if-they-coulda).

High and mighty, and not just when you’re flying.

Have fun with that.

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Matt – I am not sure who you are referencing, I do not see anyone arguing based on whether or not they got in. I see people that tried for it but accept that it is perfectly reasonable to end up with nothing. In my case I was out with my wife while this transpired so my analysis is entirely after the fact, as I noted. Others made the call on the spot with the opportunity still live. Whatever the case, these things comes and go, each with its own peculiarities. It is important to have these discussions as a… Read more »

Brooklyn
Guest
Brooklyn

Mike: Please vanish from the blogs. Your comments aren’t doing anything. Stop attacking everyone who doesn’t agree with you.

mike
Guest
mike

@max: yup.. I’m very energetic about this topic. It’s sad to see that there’s less people with good morals in this world. We need to stand up and do what is right. Even going against the tide in fear of getting hated on, just like Rapid Travel Chai.

Voice of reason
Guest
Voice of reason

Agree with you 100%.

One other point —

When people take advantage of such “deals” it is in the end the other passengers that pay for them. There is a cost to transport you to Hong Kong (in business or first class or no less). You may think you are sticking this cost to the big faceless corporation, but most of it is just passed on to other revenue paying passengers.

mike
Guest
mike

@shawn, I bet if you receive the incorrect change after a purchase by getting more back, you run out the store or maybe do a power walk out before they realize their mistake, right?

Adam S
Guest
Adam S

Good post.

@Bob – united allow for consumers to correct errors like that with a 24 hour free cancellation period, so that’s a bad analogy.

shawn
Guest
shawn

If my barber rang me up for $0.14, accepted payment, provided a receipt, and sent me on my way (like the United website did), then I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

Don
Guest
Don

Bravo and spot on! You are to be commended.

Patrick
Guest
Patrick

Well said.

Albert
Guest
Albert

My point is that it is a bad example. I would not have walked into the barber shop if I knew it was $14 – the same price as what all other barbers are charging. Further, we haven’t taken our flights yet, whereas the example suggests that services have been provided already and the consumer is pushing for the lower price even though his expectation was $14 prior to and during the hair cut.

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@Albert – I see your point on the analogy, it is not perfect, I was trying to highlight that it is something everyone or nearly everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to pay since it showed throughout the process, and are hoping to take advantage of what can only be construed as a mistake, because again, the correct price was displayed on the same screen. I hope you either get your flight or get a full refund, but I do not see why anyone has a legitimate complaint if they get nothing but a refund.

LarryInNYC
Guest
LarryInNYC

My take (which I’m kind of afraid to set down anywhere else) is that anyone who is a member of a “loyalty program” with an airline and who chooses to take advantage of a mistake like this ought to expect to see their membership terminated immediately and with extreme prejudice (meaning, loss of miles). . A loyalty program is meant to establish and reward the loyalty of the consumer to the corporation. It’s hard to come up with a definition of “loyalty” that includes taking advantage of a mistake like this — and that’s regardless of whether you’re legally entitled… Read more »

Scottrick
Guest

@Albert. It’s not at all as if a lower price were posted. The award chart is clearly posted on UA’s site. The correct award price was listed on the search page and on the final confirmation page. It’s only the “total” price at the bottom that was incorrect, and even then the trick only worked if you didn’t have the correct number of miles sitting in your account. The mistaken register analogy is much more appropriate.

Michael W Travels
Guest

It is nice to read a post regarding this mistake that takes the other side. (Not that I am saying I would’nt have loved a 4 mile redemption to HK)

Michael
Guest
Michael

I meant Right On!

Michael
Guest
Michael

Right no!

Singapore Flyer
Guest
Singapore Flyer

I would have loved to have received it, but I also know that down the road, we all pay for it with increases prices. It is a big corporate, so it is about profits, so, they will find a way to justify charging more again down the road. No win for anyone.

David
Guest
David

Excellent post! I agree completely.

tonyims
Guest
tonyims

I didnt book it either. It crosses the line. And even if they honor it, for sure they’ll recoup the cost either through price increases or upping the award chart. they have to make it up somehow. Thanks RapidChai for being sensible and going against the tide. We appreciate it.

Albert
Guest
Albert

Don’t agree with your barber analogy. Your example shows the consumer going into the shop with full intent to get a haircut at the $14 price and is “surprised” to find a lower price. A more accurate example is someone who got a haircut a week ago (i.e. not needing one) walks by and sees the barber shop with a low sticker price at the window. And in this revised example, a better question to ask is should the customer pay the $14 intended price (intended by the barber) or should he pay the lower price (which is why the… Read more »

MarkJ
Guest
MarkJ

Good points all. It has been fun reading everyone’s blogs. If you go to the barber next time and there are 20 people waiting for a haircut and you find out that all of you are charged a different price by the barber and some of you get to get the haircut first due to elite status…maybe your allegiance to the barber is not so great. Your barber…like mine charges everyone the same price for the same service and you probably like him/her personally…hard to have that relationship with an airline. I think everyone who booked these 4 miles fares… Read more »

Rapid Travel Chai
Guest

@MarkJ – Haha, that’s hilarious! It is hard to be in a spot defending an airline. And then the women can argue why barbers should charge discriminatory high prices even though they are a BIS just like a man. 😉

Max
Guest
Max

Mike you are energetic! Reply to EVERY united post about your theory from disappointment….

Andrew L
Guest
Andrew L

@Mike

Are you the fat fingered UA employee?

jk.jk.