United Airlines: We Didn't Have a Computer Glitch

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- The latest false Internet story about United ( UAL) accuses the carrier of a computer glitch after scammers were able to convince themselves they had bought airplane tickets for $5.

The Internet is a place where if you falsely convince yourself that you successfully committed a scam, you then brag about it online, where your boast gets picked up and made into "news" stories.

The trouble with this particular story is that United never sold any tickets to the scammers. "We didn't have a Web site glitch and we did not issue any tickets" as a result of the scam, said United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.

On Tuesday, about a dozen Internet stories reported that a United computer glitch enabled customers to buy international travel tickets for bargain prices, variously reported as $5, $10 and $49.40. A typical headline proclaimed "Nearly Free Flights Thanks to United Glitch."

The stories all followed an article that appeared Monday in Mashable, a New York-based Web site that primarily covers technology, social media and entertainment.

In the story, Mashable detailed the scam devised by an unidentified reader, who was able to simultaneously enter the United.com booking site with two different browsers, and then to game the site into thinking that a frequent flier account had enough mileage to obtain a free ticket, when in fact it didn't. The scammer, able to secure a reservation confirmation, then convinced himself he had bought a ticket.

The Mashable reporter wrote that by following the same process he was one click away from buying a round-trip flight from Newark to Dublin for $49.40, the cost of taxes and fees.

In some cases, the scammers later complained on the Internet that pending charge authorizations showed up in their credit card accounts -- perhaps as a virtual indication that crime doesn't pay.

United's Johnson reiterated Wednesday that whatever else happened, the scam didn't work.

"Several customers attempted to manipulate United.com to knowingly purchase tickets without having the required award miles in their accounts," he said. "Those customers who received a confirmed reservation from United.com did not in fact receive a ticket, pending deposit of the required mileage."

It should be noted that since becoming the biggest airline in the world following a 2010 merger with Continental, United has been troubled not only by some real computer system failures but also by a series of false Internet allegations.

In its summer 2012 schedule, United sought for the first time to fully merge operations of the two airlines. Operational performance plummeted, reaching a low in July when the carrier's 64% on-time arrivals rate was the worst in the industry. Problems included the introduction of new fleet types in various stations, unaccompanied by the introduction of appropriate jet bridges; a series of computer glitches; and a reduction of the number of spare aircraft in the fleet. One result of the latter miscalculation: In the second week of July, 300 passengers were stranded in Shanghai for three days.

On United's fourth-quarter earnings call in January, CEO Jeff Smisek called 2012 "the toughest year of our merger integration" and said, "We are absolutely not satisfied with the financial results we produced last year."

United believes it has fixed its operational problems, although an actual computer glitch last month resulted in a computer issuing a number of low-fare tickets, which were honored. That in fact was a glitch, when computers failed, rather than a case where people thought they had found workarounds to scam computers.

Among the best known improbable Internet imbroglios involving United was one in August 2012, when more than 100 stories on the Internet described a case in which the carrier allegedly lost a 10-year-old child at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. One headline proclaimed: "United Airlines Loses Ten-Year-Old Girl, Refuses to Help Parents Find Her." Another said, "United Loses Child Traveling Alone." And then there was "10-year-old girl flying alone left stranded in Chicago Airport."

Did United actually lose a child? Of course not. In fact, the "lost" 10-year old, who was traveling alone, was never unsupervised. She did, unfortunately, miss a connection at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. We're just not sure that "Child Misses Connection at O'Hare" would "attract eyeballs," as the Internet folks like to say.

In June 2013, a series of Internet stories accused United of forgetting to stock toilet paper on a 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight. "United Airlines crew forgot to pack toilet paper on 10-hour flight," said one headline; "United Airlines flight runs out of toilet paper," said another.

What actually happened is on a Boeing 777 flight from San Francisco to London Heathrow, the toilet paper ran out in four of the lavatories, but didn't run out in the other four. All of the lavatories were left open, on the theory that not every visit to the bathroom requires toilet paper.

This became an Internet story with a "news cycle" of several days.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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