United Airlines Hands Out Free Tickets Due to Software Bug


UPDATE 10/15/13: United Airlines tickets are being sold again for cheap by using a “Mileage Plus” loophole. It seems they have fixed the issue at this time but is it fair not to honor tickets to those users who found a possibly costly defect on United Airline’s website?


United Airlines was handing out free tickets plus fees through their website for 15 minutes yesterday morning. With a security fee, those lucky enough to get to the free tickets were charged between $5-$10 for their flights. Apparently, the free (or close to free) tickets were the result of a software bug in their filing system.

“One of our filings today contained an error which resulted in certain fares displaying as zero. We have corrected this error.” –Mark Clark, United Airlines

This is not the first time United Airlines has had an issue with transactions through their website. Apparently, in 2008, United Airlines did not charge fuel, which can range over a hundred dollars per ticket, for some lucky ticket buyers. In another incident this past July, United Airlines rescinded transactions for tickets from the U.S. to Hong Kong for a total of four frequent flier miles.

At this time, the airline company is still considering whether or not to honor the free tickets. Of course, it would be in their best interests to honor the tickets despite the systematical mistake on their part. In the past, when similar errors have occurred, airlines have either rescinded those freebies or honored them. But this brings about the question, in this type of situation, does a company need to honor these erroneous transactions or should they have the right to reverse them?

It seems that United is in a bit of a pickle here. There has been no word yet on precisely what caused the issue. Since website errors seem to be a recurring theme with them, they may have to take a look at their system as a whole. On the other hand, maybe this is just the risks of doing business in this day and age.

When I see a large company having issues with transactions on the Web, that company loses credibility in my eyes. What may look like a few free tickets due to a small software defect could easily just be the tip of the iceberg.

What do you think? Would you be skeptical about doing business with United Airlines via their website after this? Is this just the kind o SNAFU we should expect in the technical age, or is this series of errors something that the airline could prevent with an improved QA process?

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  1. Houston Haynes says:

    When I read “One of our filings today contained an error” I *don’t* think it’s a software bug in the programming sense – but a software bug in the data sense. My guess (and it’s a well-educated one) is that they are still using very old tech for data upload – all big companies are loathe to advance ‘proven’ technology – which is corporate code for “our executives are too intellectually incurious to realize the opportunity costs – until it’s too late”. The same thing happened at Ticketmaster, where on January 1 at midnight suddenly all of the tickets disappeared in the system. My team got a hot call from an executive at Live Nation – only to find hours later that it was a ‘template’ uploaded by a low-level analyst *months earlier* in a seemingly unrelated system. That one ‘template’ change that was set to trigger with the new year ended up masking ticketing inventory for a huge range of events that were set to be made available at the beginning of the year. If it had gone as widely public as this United Airlines issue, it would have been reported as ‘a software bug’. Really – it’s a problem with executives short-changing system protections in order to ‘save fixed costs’ on proper software development. Maybe that analyst got fired – but really it should be the people that promulgate 1970s technology well into the 21st century. Considering how airlines operate – I imagine they have the same core infrastructure issues. You can’t develop/test your way out of that until the costs are so great that the company/board gets rid of the executives that allowed those conditions to persist.

    • Gregory Mooney says:

      Thanks for the comment and great points, Houston.

      I completely agree that these legacy systems are an ongoing issue for big corporations and they will never change since it’s just “business as usual” in corporate America. Luckily for United Airlines, it wasn’t an issue where their system went down but a few lucky customers won the “Bug” lottery. Maybe next time they won’t be so lucky or maybe they’ll take it as a wake up call.

      As you said, they won’t change their ways until they actually see that they’re losing money, but in actuality they already are since this mentality by executives hinders their growth.

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