Ethics Quiz: The United Airlines Give-Away

"Hey everybody! Free fights!!!"

“Hey everybody! Free fights!!!”

Via Forbes:

“For fifteen tense minutes on Thursday afternoon, United Airlines’ fare booking engine was operating at full steam. Someone, likely a Flyertalk user, noticed that fares between Washington DC and Minneapolis were pricing at $10 and posted his finding onto the forum. Attention grew rapidly, with over 100 replies in just an hour, and the news spread to Twitter. The glitch in the system appeared to offer $0 fares plus $5 in tax for many domestic flights, and was apparently caused by human error. Some forum readers reported finding $10 flights between Washington DC and Hawaii, while others scooped up over a dozen tickets to destinations all over the country.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Week,

(as if you couldn’t guess), is:

Was it ethical for people to take advantage of this computer glitch and purchase tickets at an impossible discount?

I bet you also know what my answer is.

Of course it isn’t.

It isn’t fair, and it isn’t honest.

And you know it.

Though the law of contracts may well uphold this as a valid offer and acceptance, ethically it is as wrong as wrong can be, except for the genuine mental defective who believed that United really intended to commit financial suicide. When the price on any item for sale is obviously wrong, I always alert the store and pay full price. Sometimes, in gratitude, the store gives me the marked price, but then it’s the store’s choice.

This is pure Golden Rules territory. You know it’s a mistake: it is wrong to act as if it isn’t, and wrong to capitalize on what you know is an error that will cause someone devastating harm. Taking  tickets that you know are incorrectly priced because a computer system is broken is very close to stealing a TV because the store is empty and the windows are broken. It  is just one small step from looting.


Facts: Forbes

18 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The United Airlines Give-Away

  1. I feel like coming out of hibernation for this one. In the event that you happened to be booking your needed flight (regardless of price) at the time of the error, I don’t see a problem with securing your seat on the flight, especially since there will be a booking frenzy and then allowing United to adjust your fare afterwards.

    Here’s a more interesting question: Would it have been even more ethical to book all of the seats possible in order to return them to United and protect them (to some small extent) from others that would capitalize on the mistake?

    • The ethical person, purchasing a flight they would have purchased anyway, would purchase their ticket and immediately notify United with the willingness to accept an appropriate fare.

    • 1. Why were you in hibernation? You and Jeff are the patron saints here! I assumed you were busy recalling state senators who then started screaming “Voter suppression!!!”
      2. I agree about securing a flight you needed to make, though reflecting on my experiences with United, I wonder if any one NEEDS to fly that outfit.
      3. Which means maybe my whole premise is wrong, because those tickets aren’t worth anything.
      4. Your proposal would be exemplary ethics.

  2. I’d like to think that I would do the ethical thing; e.g., texagg04’s solution of buying the ticket and telling the airline that they might want to reconsider the price. But am I an unethical person if there is a tiny voice of regret in my head that I am behaving ethically?

    • Of course not, it’s hardly unethical to wish you were doing something self-serving while you actually are doing the opposite. It hardly takes a strong sense of ethics to avoid something that is wrong and you also have no interest in doing it, its the wrong things that you WANT to do but don’t that show your character.

  3. Hmmm … of course, it is also unethical for the airlines to intentionally overbook flights and generally continue to downgrade flying to the point where I’d rather get a root canal.

    But, of course this is unethical to book these fares. I guess I just don’t care that much!

  4. Well – United will honor the fares, but seriously, they’ll get the money back for expanded leg-room charges, drink charges, and bag fees.

  5. Is it possible that United is faking the fare glitch in order to give itself better PR?

    That was the first thing that came to my head when I heard this story. Do something that won’t cost you much in the short run and might get you more business in the long run by appearing to be a good business that honors deals given, even if in “error”.

  6. Taking advantage of a corporation like this- regardless of level- is still knowing fraud. It’s no different than if bank posted your account as being three digits higher than its true amount and you, knowing full well that it’s a mistake, start buying up everything you can like crazy before its corrected. It’s still fraud and theft, as you are depriving others of their funds. A well heeled company (or bank) is still composed of people and stockholders. You are doing the equivalent of holding up the Silverado stagecoach.

  7. So, if you are hired by your client to find the cheapest fare, can you act ethically and refuse to take advantage of the error? Consider the following:

    Alexander Mundy is a lawyer and an acknowledged expert in American painting. He has several clients who regularly retain him to negotiate the purchase of museum quality art. Recently, a client hired Mundy to negotiate the purchase of a portrait of George Washington as a young man.

    The client explained, “I saw it on a house tour five years ago and tried to buy it then, but the woman who owned it said it was a family heirloom and wasn’t interested in selling. I heard that she died recently and her husband is having an Estate Sale. You have authority to purchase the painting for up to $500,000.”

    Mundy goes to visit the old widower and asks whether he would be willing to sell “that picture of the young man there.”

    “I suppose so. My wife brought it with her when we got married. I think it’s a picture of some dead relative.”

    “How much do you want for it?”

    “I sure do need some cash. How about a thousand dollars?” It is clear to Mundy that the old gentleman has no idea what his painting is worth.

    What should Mundy do?

    a) Say, “Done!” and immediately write a check for $1,000.
    b) Advise the old man to get a lawyer.
    c) Tell the old man that he should really consider having it appraised before he sells it.
    d) Offer $500 and close the deal at $750.

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