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October 11, 2010

United Airlines: Hurry, Only 4 Seats Left?

Filed under: Internet,Travel — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:26 am

If you were planning a trip and were warned by the airline that the flights you were thinking of taking only had four seats left at the price you found, you might be prompted to book immediately, right?

Well, it seems that United Airlines has taken to giving passengers such a warning on their website. For example, on the flights between Boston and Washington, DC leaving on October 27 and returning on October 29, a notice appeared warning that only four seats remain at the outrageous price of $497 plus taxes/fees for a particular flight. [See separate previous story about this high fare.] I better grab my seats, I thought to myself, before the price gets even higher.

Thinking that there might be more seats available on alternate flights the same day, I starting clicking all the various flight options shown.


As you can see, no matter what flight combination was chosen, whether it be six in the morning or nine at night, “only” four seats were left on EVERY flight in either direction. Coincidence? I think not. It looks like United is using a bit of a scare tactic, not unlike that used by timeshare hucksters — “this deal is available today only, if you delay, you will miss out”. 

Since MrConsumer was going to fly to DC anyway, he decided to test United’s system to see if they were displaying an actual count of seats left.  At the time of the test, it was not obvious that these were “code-share” flights actually operated by US Airways.

Below is the flight selection screen MrConsumer saw just prior to booking his flights. Note that supposedly only four seats are left at the price shown.

And here is a new fare selection page moments after one of the four remaining seats was purchased:


Hmmm… still only four seats available at the posted price after I bought one of them. Hmmmm. Incidentally, a check of their website three days later revealed the same “only 4 seats left” warning for all flights.

Mouse Print* asked United Airlines for an explanation of how it could be that “only 4 seats” were left on all these flights, and that the number did not decrease when a ticket was purchased.

“First, we are able to book certain codeshare partners (e.g., US Airways) on, however we can only view 4 seats of their inventory at a time, when in fact there may be more available.  This is a technical constraint.”  — United media relations

It seems to me that United should not be displaying their “only 4 tickets left” warning when they know that it is not an accurate statement of the actual number of seats remaining on the flight.

It is not known how accurate these seat availability warnings are on regular United flights.

• • •


  1. It’s not just United. Other major carriers do the same. It’s obviously a ploy to gouge consumers.

    I’ve had better fortune working with Expedia. They occasionally cost me an extra nickel or two, but they do advocate for transparency and I have yet to have an Expedia-based travel itinerary go sour.

    As an aside, I think we were better off when the Airline Industry was more highly regulated in the manner of a public/private partnership. I am by no means a ‘socialist’ but free market capitalism has proven itself to be a complete failure, except for the wealthy few.

    Ditto the telephone industry.

    Comment by Mark Gary Blumenthal, MD, MPH — October 11, 2010 @ 8:40 am
  2. I have also seen this on other carrier’s websites recently.

    If United already KNOWS they cannot show more than 4 seats, they should re-word their message to something like “AT LEAST 4 seats at this fare” (or just not display anything)

    Comment by Ken — October 11, 2010 @ 10:10 am
  3. This is a valid complaint about blatantly false advertising on their website. If you are able to get them to change please do so…

    I find it a welcome contrast to the rather odd complaint “Left Unchallenged, Airfares Skyrocket Until… ” post a few weeks ago. Everyone knows the airlines have demand/supply driven pricing.

    Comment by Iolaire McFadden — October 11, 2010 @ 1:42 pm
  4. United’s media response is correct, if perhaps not completely explained. United’s sytem is designed to display the message whenever fewer than seven seats are available in a fare bucket. United’s system will show 7 available if there are more available, or the actual number if less. Since websites are normally programmed to pull information from GDS availability, but are programmed separately, showing inventory from another carrier’s GDS that shows fewer seats at a time would always display the message. This sales tactic is purely academic, because the number of seats left is immaterial to securing the fare, which is never guaranteed until the purchase is completed.

    Comment by Scott Laird — October 12, 2010 @ 5:24 pm
  5. How is this not obvious that these are code share flights when in every instance it clearly states that the flight is operated by US Airways. A quick look at all flights on United’s website will show that code share flights are indicated by an indication of which airline is operating the flight. Scott Laird’s comment above is certainly valid.

    Edgar replies: Trust me, I was shocked when I got my email confirmation with a bold warning that some of my itinerary was operated by another airline. That was the first time I realized it was a code share flight.

    When I first did the fare search for this trip, the screen had the line “Operated by US Airways” spread out over two lines. So what I saw said “Operated by US”. I thought that was weird to have such an obvious statement that their flight with a United Airlines flight number was operated by “us”. Who else would operate it, I thought.

    Had I realized that UA was just reselling a US Air shuttle ticket, I would have purchased it directly from US Air.

    Comment by Boyd Tomasetti — October 14, 2010 @ 9:05 am

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