A little known Norwegian airline website named Widerøe generated a tremendous amount of buzz and a lot of very happy customers this weekend when word got out that supposed unintentional error in their reservation system was allowing people to book international tickets on United Airlines and its affiliated carriers at incredibly low prices. As sometimes happens, however, things are not always as they seem.
To give you an idea of the types of deals we're talking about, how about $130 round-trip from New York to Milan, Italy? That's not the base fare before tax—that's the total fare including all taxes and fees. Other examples include $280 roundtrip from Los Angeles to Dubai in the UAE, and $298 from Houston to Bombay, India. These are just a small smattering of the incredible deals that lucky travelers scored on Saturday and at least part of Sunday. Unheard of fares were available from across the U.S. to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
FlyerTalk Breaks the News
The news of this glitch was first reported on FlyerTalk.com, a website that caters to frequent fliers and has an online discussion forum called Mileage Run Deals, a place devoted to finding and exploiting cheap and mistake fares. FlyerTalk member Chris Luth, was one of the first to notice the post on FlyerTalk announcing the glitch which has already racked up over 2,000 individual posts since Saturday. Mr. Luth scored trips from Washington, DC to Tel Aviv, Houston to Bombay, and New York to Dubai. His total cost for all three trips was $850. "It was the deal of the century," says Mr. Luth. "These were destinations I had always wanted to go to, and the cheap fares turned it from 'going someday' to 'pack your bags now!' I had three trips booked in a matter of a few hours." FlyerTalk users advised the uninitiated, "DO NOT call or email Wideroe, United, or anyone else involved in booking/ticketing/flying this fare," for fear that the error might be discovered and the deal would be pulled.
Mysterious Missing Fuel Surcharges
What the savvy frequent fliers on FlyerTalk and TheFlightDeal discovered, was that Widerøe's airfare booking engine was dropping a component of the airfare known as the fuel (a.k.a. 'YQ') surcharge for flights on United and affiliated carriers. Airlines like to play games with the fuel surcharges for a number of reasons including, being able to tack them onto supposedly "free" frequent flier award tickets, to make their fares look lower than they actually are so they can lower the fare basis on which they pay commissions, and also so they can increase fares across the board at will under the guise of "rising fuel prices". They can make up a significant portion of the cost an international ticket. To see just how much, let's look at a breakdown of that great fare from New York to Milan people were booking like crazy all day Saturday:
As you can see, the normal fare from Newark to Milan in Feb on United is $604.40. If you look closely at the breakdown though, you'll see that the actual base fare is only $17.50 each way, while the YQ/fuel surcharge is $474. It's obvious here that the airlines are using the YQ surcharge to manipulate the cost of the ticket since no sane person would ever believe that $35 was a realistic price for a roundtrip flight to Europe on a major airline. One FlyerTalk user said, "If airlines want to play the fuel surcharge scam, they get burned sometimes. No sympathy." Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Since the Widerøe website was dropping the YQ surcharge off the fare, the actual price of the ticket became $130.40 ($604.40 - $474.00 = $130.40). This is why FlyerTalk, Facebook and many other online and offline channels were abuzz on Saturday with people frantically trying to book tickets before the error was discovered and fixed. Norwegians were also apparently booking similarly priced hot deals from Scandinavia to the U.S. mainland and Hawaii as well during this time.
The Beginning of the End?
As the day wore on, the news continued to spread thanks to social media and other travel sites, Widerøe's website became slower and slower with the deluge of traffic that was hammering it. Many searches returned errors to the frustration of rabid users who were trying to book the best possible deals. The situation got so bad by early evening, that Widerøe put a message on their homepage that the site was experiencing technical difficulties and was currently unavailable. Most people thought the deal was dead at that point, however a few hours later the site came back on-line and many of the same low prices were still available.
It was later reported by Aftenposten (Norwegian for the "The Evening Post"), Norway's largest newspaper, that the source of the error was actually Amadeus, a global travel distribution system that Widerøe partners with to book their tickets, and that the problem was outside of Widerøe's control. The article quotes a text message from Richard Konstenien, Director of Communication for Widerøe as saying, "Amadeus has published error rates Saturday night without fuel surcharge. This was impossible for our system to detect, and it was apparently known through various online forums. Therefore, it sold many tickets relatively cheaply to the U.S. Unsure if United will draw tickets back or maintain them. The last time this happened, tickets were upheld and people could travel." (text was translated from Norwegian)
Mr. Konstenien goes on to say in a follow up message that the error was largely corrected on Sunday, and that while Widerøe experienced tremendous demand during this period, the source of the problem was Amadeus, and they had no way to stop it. He admits that that sales and associated commissions spiked due to the error, and that Widerøe was the primary beneficiary.
Unwitting Victim or Puppet Master?
It's worth noting that, United's own website suffered a glitch earlier this year in which resulted in many domestic tickets pricing at or close to $0 for about 15 minutes. United chose to take the high road and honor all tickets sold, although with more stringent DOT rules which went into effect in January 2012, it's not clear they had any choice. While the prices were higher with this latest pricing mistake, the fares stuck around for a much longer period of time.
At this point in time, it's unclear as to who ultimately will bear the burden of the thousands of drastically lower airfares that were sold. Based on Mr. Konstenien's comments, he seems unworried, and puts the blame squarely on Amadeus. Given that many of these tickets were booked directly on United, one wonders whether United will take take the hit on them.
The question remains though, who discovered the original problem on Widerøe's website and leaked it to the world? Up until now it was a mystery, but some independent research has turned up some very interesting and unexpected information.
A Very Odd Coincidence
Each post on FlyerTalk is started by a unique user. The post that got everyone's attention and kicked things off was from user LN-MOW:
LN-MOW is letting everyone on FlyerTalk know that he is seeing deals starting from as low as $370 from the U.S. to Oslo. The fact that he mentions Oslo, Norway first is an important point which will become clear shortly. It's also apparent that while he knows there are amazing deals to be had, he doesn't realize that there are even better deals out there like the $135 fare from New York to Milan mentioned earlier. About 45 minutes later, LN-MOW posts again in the same FlyerTalk thread to help fan the flames:
Again, take notice of how LN-MOW references the deal in NOK (Norwegian Kroner) as well as USD. A handy feature on FlyerTalk is that you can look at other posts made by the same user. If we look at previous posts by LN-MOW, we find that the before Saturday, the last time this user posted on FlyerTalk was on February 28. Obviously he's far from an active user.
If we go back a little father in this user's posting history we find two posts of particular interest:
Notice the use of the word we're in the post announcing a new travel map feature on Widerøe's website. LN-MOW seems to indicate that he is somehow he is associated with them. And finally in response to a customer service enquiry from another Flyertalk user:
"Please contact our Customer Relations office…" makes it clear that LN-MOW is actually an employee of Widerøe in Norway, even though he purposely tries to mask his location by listing his home city as Alpharetta, GA in his profile. But why would a Widerøe employee want to leak news of a problem with their own website that exploited a problem with one of their business partners? Furthermore, who is this mystery user?
In a response to the message above about the new travel map on Widerøe, another user named 'farmer' replies:
So it appears that farmer is also likely an employee of Widerøe as well since he has the inside line on the new website feature. Again, drilling down to previous posts by farmer yields the final piece of the puzzle:
Farmer says above that he is responsible for running Widerøe's website and he wants to help the user with their problem. He signs the message, "rgds Odd". If we take the final step here, we discover that, "Odd" is none other than Odd Langvatn, the CEO and Managing Director at Widerøe Internet AS , the technology arm that runs Widerøe's website.
What we have here is a pretty damning case that not only did Widerøe know about the fuel-dumping mistake, they intentionally leaked it to the world!
While we may never discover exactly how and why this happened, we can speculate on a few things:
- Widerøe likely discovered the pricing glitch in Amadeus on their own.
- Since it was Amadeus' fault, they wouldn't be responsible for any losses, so they decided to capitalize on the mistake.
- They didn't make any attempt on their own to stop bookings. There were even unsubstantiated rumors that they attempted to add additional server capacity at one point to keep up with the intense load their website was under.
- They expressed optimism in the Norwegian press about the high number of bookings, noted the fact that previous mistakes were honored, and confirmed it was a profitable experience for them.
- They posted the exploit to FlyerTalk first, since they had previous experience there and knew people would jump on it, and spread it like wildfire. They likely timed their post to occur on the weekend so as to minimize the chances that United and Amadeus had the staff in the office to fix the glitch quickly.
There have been some amazing deals in the past due to mistakes by airlines, but this deal is likely to go down in history as the first (and possibly last) time an airline has leaked its own mistake for people to exploit!