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United Airlines Glitch Erroneously Slashes Thousands Of Ticket Prices

United Airlines Glitch Erroneously Slashes Thousands Of Ticket Prices
[Photo: Flickr user Jim Larrison]

One of the disadvantages of a dynamic payment service–where prices constantly fluctuate with supply and demand–is that when things go wrong, they have the potential to go really wrong.

Case in point is United Airlines, which has just canceled thousands of would-be reservations after a pricing glitch on its Danish website offered first-class flights from the U.K. to destinations such as New York for a fraction of their regular price.

United canceled the bookings when it discovered what had happened, emailing the “several thousand” people who had snapped up the bargain tickets to say, “[W]e are not able to honor your ticket at the price that you paid. We have voided your reservation and will not process your payment.”

The airline has now fixed the fault, which it suggests may have been due to fluctuations with Danish currency, the krone, which was valued “significantly higher than normal during the limited period that customers made these bookings.”

This isn’t the first time United Airlines has been caught short. In September 2013, it accidentally listed tickets at a cost of $0 each and had to shut down its booking system to avoid the flood of requests. On that occasion, the airline honored the tickets it had sold–although it did not reveal the number it had been pushed to give away at that discounted rate.

Related problems have affected a number of other online retailers. Late last year, Amazon’s U.K. website suffered an error with its third-party repricing software, resulting in thousands of items being discounted to a single penny.

There’s probably a lesson in here about the perils of algorithm-dependent, real-time pricing. Unfortunately, we’re way too busy bargain hunting online to find it.