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A Lucky Few Score Cheap Plane Tickets From United

Adam Levine-Weinberg
September 16, 2013

United Continental (NYSE: UAL) may be the most hated airline in America: It received far more passenger complaints than any other airline last year. Yet the carrier made some customers very happy last Thursday when it accidentally posted some fares at ridiculously low prices, charging just $5 round-trip on many flights!

The mistake fares were only available for a couple of hours, according to a United spokesperson. Yet that was enough time for many people to discover them, especially once the news began to spread via Twitter and other channels. Luckily for them, United decided to honor the tickets rather than try to cancel them en masse.

Brief error
The glitch in United's system caused it to charge only the 9/11 security fee of $2.50 per flight leg, according to Rick Seaney, CEO of In other words, United will not keep any revenue from the tickets it accidentally sold.

Since most customers should have realized that the company would not deliberately give away tickets in mass quantities, United could have attempted to cancel the reservations. (Some airlines have successfully canceled "mistake" fares in the past.) However, doing so would have inevitably led to bad press -- and possibly a lawsuit or fine.

Small potatoes
United ultimately decided to honor all of the tickets it sold on Thursday. While the company has not yet disclosed the number of free or almost-free tickets it sold, they were probably few enough in number that the financial hit will be manageable.

United sells approximately $90 million of tickets per day on average, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The "mistake fares" were available for just two or three hours, and covered only a handful of routes. On the flip side, once people started to notice the abnormally cheap fa