Free Tickets to China! American Airlines Honors Computer Glitch Fares

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By Keith Wagstaff

When a computer glitch in March offered up free and cheap flights to China on American Airlines, more than 1,200 people took advantage of it. This week, federal regulators announced that those tickets would be honored.

It all started on St. Patrick's Day, when a technical error made tickets from select U.S. cities to Shanghai or Beijing, which would normally sell for anywhere from $400 to $5,000, available for free or $20.

The glitch only lasted from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET, but that was enough time for news of the fares to spread on social media. A total of 1,194 reservations were made: 589 of them purchased immediately and 605 of them placed on 24-hour hold. The airline honored the tickets that were bought right away, but canceled the reserved tickets.

According to a document from the U.S. Department of Transportation, American Airlines said there was "compelling evidence" that the ticket buyers were "prompted to do so by social media posts" and were therefore made in "bad faith, and not on the honest belief that a good deal was available."

Related: Southwest Airlines Says Ticket Glitch Fixed After Day of 'Pure Hell'

The DOT requires that airline tickets put on hold are honored. American claimed that regulations should "not be used to reward consumers who purchase mistake fares in bad faith."

In the end, without admitting that it had violated any rules by canceling the tickets, American Airlines settled with the DOT. As part of a consent order posted Wednesday, the airlines agreed to honor the free and cheap fares. The only restriction? Those customers need to fly to China within the next year.