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Oops! United Airlines owns up to error, lets free tickets fly

| Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 11:14 p.m.

United Airlines said passengers who bought tickets that were accidentally sold for free because of faulty reservations data will be able to use them for travel.

“United has reviewed the error that occurred yesterday and decided that, based on these specific circumstances, we will honor the tickets,” Mary Clark, a spokeswoman for the unit of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., wrote Friday in an email. The company is not disclosing how many of the tickets were sold.

The $0 fares were only on the United.com website for “a couple hours” at midday Thursday and were not distributed via channels such as travel agencies, said Megan McCarthy, another spokeswoman. United's Shares reservation system did not cause the fault, McCarthy said without giving further details.

The carrier had to close the booking engine on its United.com website “so we could correct the error,” McCarthy said. The website was back to normal about 2:30 p.m. Chicago time Thursday, she said.

Many of the tickets cost $5 or $10 in total, suggesting that United was collecting only a mandatory 9/11 security fee, said Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare.com, a ticket research firm based in Dallas. Taxes and fees typically add up to $22 or more per ticket, he said.

Robert Stokas, 35, an attorney in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, said he was on United's website when the erroneous data was loaded and bought six tickets for a trip to Los Angeles next June for $60 total.

“I assumed it was a promotion or something,” said Stokas. He said he is pleased that United will honor the tickets.

“They took the high road, said, ‘We made a mistake,' ” he said. “It may cost them some money on the front end, but it saves them potential litigation and bad press.”

A similar pricing mistake occurred in May 2002 when a fare sale accidentally appeared as a $5 round-trip ticket for about 45 minutes, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.

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