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United fare snafu sells seats for four frequent-flier miles

When is an airfare too good to be true?

One answer might be when you can fly first class between the U.S. and Asia for just four frequent flier miles plus a couple of Jacksons in fees.

That was the “deal” that greeted quick-thinking members of United Airlines’ MileagePlus program this weekend when a computer glitch let them book fares that typically cost $5,000 or more each way for the same number of miles you’d earn buying a venti caffé mocha with a co-branded credit card at your local Starbucks.

“It was basically a free first-class ticket,” said Brian Kelly, who runs the website ThePointsGuy.com and was lucky enough to get a seat from Hong Kong to JFK in November for just four miles and $43 in fees. “When I booked, it actually listed the fare at 160,000 miles each way but when I bought the ticket, it came out to four miles.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it didn’t take long for word to spread and for United to close the loophole. On Monday, the carrier posted a response on FlyerTalk.com and MilePoint.com, which said, in part, “We will be in contact with customers who have tickets issued at the incorrect award amounts. Customers will be given the choice to redeem at the correct mileage amount or re-deposit their award with all fees waived. We regret any inconvenience this has caused you, and appreciate your understanding.”

In other words, they would not be honoring the fare as booked, a decision that raises age-old questions of what responsibility do airlines have when such mistakes happen, and is it ethical for passengers to expect such fares to be honored even when they know it’s a mistake.

It’s an issue that’s taken on new significance in light of passenger-protection rules from the Department of Transportation (DOT) that were updated in January. According to DOT, raising a fare post-purchase is prohibited, “even when the fare is a mistake,” and “attempts to relieve a carrier of the prohibition against (doing so are considered) an unfair and deceptive practice.”

“We don’t discuss investigations that may be underway, but to date we have not issued a penalty regarding the ban on post-purchase price increases that took effect in January,” said DOT spokesman Bill Mosley. Given that the case in question involves miles rather than money adds yet another wrinkle.

Passengers, meanwhile, are split on the issue of whether airlines should make good on such great, if unintended, deals. When Kelly asked his readers—do you think taking advantage of mistakes or "too-good-to-be-true" deals is unethical—28 percent said “yes.” The other 72 percent had no qualms.

Count George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com, among the minority: “It’s no different than a misprint in a newspaper ad for a department store,” he told NBC News. “People know it’s a mistake and it’s unethical to expect something for nothing.”

As for Kelly, he more or less agrees with Hobica and says he won’t be upset if United doesn’t honor the four-mile deal as long as they communicate that directly and quickly. He wouldn’t be opposed to a small compensatory gesture from the airline, but he also finds a bit of humor in the whole affair.

“How often do airlines raise their prices just as you’re about to book a ticket?” he said. “This is one of the few times where you can feel that you actually got a deal on a flight.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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