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United Airlines Snafu a Public Relations Coup

By now most readers are aware of United Airlines snafu last week. The airlines booking engine allowed visitors to book airline tickets for little to no cost; taxes and mandatory government fees were assessed as there is no true free lunch.

Stories in the media abound of lucky purchasers booking tickets to the Hawaiian Islands for the cost of taxes and fees totaling $50 or less. Even during the days of regulated airfares and legacy airlines, a $50 ticket from the Mainland to Hawaii has not been offered since the islands became the 50th state.

United has advised the airlines will honor the tickets booked. This is the proper protocol and not unprecedented in the industry. Other airlines have endured such fat-finger errors most recently El Al, the national airline of Israel.

While United Airlines will loose money on the tickets procured at no-cost, consider the public relations bonanza. First, United Airlines as a brand was blasted across social media and specifically Twitter. Second the story made most newscasts including local, regional, national and international outlets. In addition, the United brand was blasted across old media AKA newspapers the following morning in sections including travel, lifestyle and business.

As a PR practitioner I will advise from the onset, one cannot purchase such publicity and exposure.My view is make lemonade out of the lemons. The following is an open letter to United Airlines:

Dear Mr. Smisek:

As a devoted client of your airline and seeing your face and voice monthly when I fly the friendly skies, it is an honor to send the following letter. Someone in your GDS department made a sizable error concerning loading fares or a coding error. Know what? It happens.

I applaud United for taking the high-road and honoring the tickets booked. No worries, the airline will make money concerning ancillary fees including but not limited to change fees, luggage charges and buy-on-board snacks.

My advise, use the error and the media attention to the airlines advantage. As a Public Relations and Marketing veteran consider the following:

Each quarterly consider offering a 15-minute window associated with your booking engine when flights, regardless of destination will be sold for no charge. Flights booked during this window of opportunity will only be charged for the mandatory taxes and fees. This random event each quarter will not be announced prior. It will be the ultimate pop-up or flash sale in cyberspace; truly random and luck of the timing. Your first foray could be oriented to insomniacs on the East Coast i.e. between 2:45AM and 3:00AM ET, the next quarter for early risers in Hawaii. The options are endless as within a 24 hour cycle you have ninety-six (96) 15-minute increments to choose from.

Of course the airlines will include stipulations including but not limited to bookings must occur on the United site only. Provide disclaimers there will be standard ancillary fees including itinerary change fees, baggage and so forth. Consider charging a token service fee to cover credit card processing. Enhance the opportunity by offering double-miles for Mileage Plus members who book during this quarterly opportunity whether existing or new members (a great opportunity to increase your client base).

The pure randomness of the 15-minute period once a quarter will drive increased traffic to your site. Yes, once the bookings become available, word will travel through cyberspace and there is the possibility of the United reservations site crashing from overuse. Hint, the middle of the night is a low-traffic period.

However imagine the anticipation and excitement available to those random customers on the United site that happen to be booking during this window of opportunity. I can guarantee, you will have increased visitors to the United site immediately AND build a client base as prospective travelers will continually be checking the United site for that one opportunity to book a flight for literally the cost of a snack box. Coupled with the ability to obtain double miles via Mileage Plus; the other airlines will be envious.


A Mileage Plus Member since 1989 with a membership # that begins with 000.

BTW: I am flying internationally next month, any chance for an upgrade to BusinessFirst?

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