Now Everyone is Coming Out of the Woodwork to Complain About United’s Overbooking

There’s a passenger being dragged off a plane and bloodied and then there’s people looking for their 15 minutes complaining about situations outside an airline’s control.

Which one does the story of Geoff Fearns, President of TriPacific Capital Advisors, sound like to you?

He flew to Kauai last week for a conference, but changed plans to return early and bought a $1000 one-way first class ticket back to Los Angeles.

After boarding a United agent told him that he wouldn’t be able to sit in first class.

  • The original aircraft went mechanical
  • They substituted the plane for one that had fewer first class seats
  • First class was sold out and now there weren’t enough first class seats for all passengers booked in the cabin.

United Boeing 757 Heading to Hawaii

The investor “held his ground. He was already on plane, already seated. He shouldn’t have to disembark.”

United bases downgrade priority on fare, frequent flyer status, and check-in time.

Suddenly it had more first-class passengers than it knew what to do with. So it turned to its “How to Screw Over Customers” handbook and determined that the one in higher standing — more miles flown, presumably — gets the seat and the other first-class passenger, even though he’s also a member of the frequent-flyer program, gets the boot.

Since this customer was a member of MileagePlus he feels like he should have priority and someone else should have been booted!

He was stuck flying coach in a middle seat “between a married couple who were in the midst of a nasty fight and refused to be seated next to each other.” He couldn’t even trade seats!

His demands:

  • Full refund for his flight
  • United should donate $25,000 to the charity of his choice

Instead he was offered the difference in fare between what he paid and a coach ticket and $500 towards a future flight. Sounds about right to me.

Not everyone agrees.

Julia Underwood, a business professor at Azusa Pacific University, said United’s actions in both the dragged-off-the-plane episode and with Fearns reflect a coldhearted mindset utterly devoid of compassion for customers.

“They’re so locked into their policies, there’s no room for empathy,” she said.

…Fearns said three different members of the crew on his middle-seat, economy-class return to L.A. apologized for how he was treated in Hawaii. But they said they were unable to do anything.

United employees were apologetic, but there’s not really any suggestion of what United should have done differently other than inconvenience someone else.

Hat tip goes to mogon who writes, “from experience, if you choose to go to or live on the most isolated isolated chain on earth, there will be times when it is not possible to get where you need to go exactly when you want to go. There are several cultural threads…tugged on in this story.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. They sold him a First Class ticket…he didn’t get to fly in the class of service he paid for. He should get a full refund. They breached their contract. Not sure why you are defending the airline here.

  2. As I wrote on my blog, my problem is not with the downgrade itself, but 1.) first boarding him and especially 2.) threatening to “handcuff” him.

    Why the threats?

  3. This is NOT about overbooking.

    It’s about an airline that is too incompetent and too cheap to manage VDB and IDB properly at the gate and instead uses law enforcement and threats thereof to forcibly deboard paying, confirmed, boarded passengers.

  4. @Matthew United made a mistake, I’ve seen it happen before on flights I’ve been on, replacement aircraft with fewer F seats and an agent has to come on to do the downgrade. That’s frustrating all around.

  5. United has always taken advantage of their million milers. Their aircraft are always in disrepair. And the last flight I took, the take off was aborted, come to find out, the hydraulics light was in in the cock pit (dear husband was a commercial pilot for a reputable airline) and so the story goes, the mechanic disabled the light and we lost hydraulics at 3000 feet. Lovely united.

  6. @gary Exactly Gary, “United made a mistake” and the issue appears to be that when this airline (and others) make a mistake they do everything possible to make sure they are the ones least inconvenienced or out of pocket when these mistakes are made…..even if it means resorting to threatening passengers with handcuffs.

    Everyone makes mistakes and if you hold your hands up and admit you’ve screwed up and then proceed to do what you can to make things right (even if it’s at your own expense) then, generally, everything works out pretty nicely.

    On the other hand when you refuse to to take responsibility for your own failings things aren’t going to end well.

    In this instance why didn’t United offer money to the other 1st Class pax to give up their seats (and if they did and no one accepted why didn’t they keep increasing the offer until someone did?)

    Why the need to threaten a paying passenger?

    Too many instances of bloggers defending airlines recently….it’s getting tiresome and it needs to stop.

  7. Wait a minute — how could the passenger board without a boarding pass for that seat? Even on a change of gauge — If he had the boarding pass, he should have been allowed to fly in that seat. Too bad about the “higher status” pax. United is clearly wrong on this one, too.

  8. “Sounds about right to me”? Sounds like they followed the compensation component of their policy, but who’s to say that’s right?

    First this was LIH. The inbound was a 5 hour flight away. If they oversold F, they knew it some 6 hours ahead of time when the equipment swapped on the INBOUND. Where’s the communication? Why isn’t the unseated person the victim, why this guy? Where’s the notice to the station so they can deal with it — start by calling DL to move some people?

    Did they solicit for volunteers to take a downgrade? If so, how much did they offer? Did they try to block a reasonable seat in Coach for the likely downgrade before everyone had checked in and all seats were taken? They had 6 hours notice after all. Did they look to other carriers or connections to maybe make this work? Did they aggressively approach those not traveling to LAX who might have less of an impact if they were rerouted some other way? Did DL have F seats on their similarly timed flight that might have made this a compelling offer? What about asking for a volunteer to stay over and go tomorrow? A voucher + hotel in Kauai might be compelling for someone. Are we sure there was not a single upgrader on the flight who couldn’t be downgraded?

    United has their procedures, they stick to them when convenient, and when the outcome isn’t pretty, they go back and say they followed procedures. The last couple days have shown us that’s not good enough. There’s a lot more they can do to mitigate things, and there’s a lot more they can do to be more generous when stuff hits the fan.

  9. “Instead he was offered the difference in fare between what he paid and a coach ticket and $500 towards a future flight. Sounds about right to me.”

    I completely disagree here. Who determines the value of the “coach ticket”? Would you even considering flying coach in a middle seat at all, at any price, let alone a price decided by the airline? I may see a $1,000 first class ticket as worth my money while a $200 middle seat coach ticket absolutely worthless.

    Would you pay upfront for a Ferrari only to be told later “Sorry, we’re out,, here’s a fully-loaded Chevy Cruze (which WE set the price at $20,000), we’ll refund you the difference”?

  10. United seems to frequently screw up the boarding process. They should not board passengers they know they cannot carry and whether or not the passenger has been boarded should factor into the decision about who will get bumped. Being removed from a plane or downgraded on board is embarrassing and it is qualitatively different from IDB.

    In the Louisville incident, the airline clearly knew it needed four seats back, that should have been handled at the gate. Perhaps that would have delayed the process 10 minutes; it’s hard to see how deplaning boarded passengers, even if no one objected, would take less time.

    In the Hawaii incident, either the airline knew in advance that the aircraft swap (itself a failure on their part, both in not having the original aircraft available and not having a replacement aircraft with enough seating available) would create an oversold situation and handled it at the gate, or else the “high priority” passenger only booked after the swap and should not have been able to check in.

    In the Hawaii incident, the difference to United in refunding the full fare versus the difference in fares would have been negligible; they should have done it. There is no evidence whatsoever that the passenger would have elected to fly United economy — his only choice after United screwed him over — rather than some other airline’s first class if he had known in advance that United first class wasn’t available.

    I can only ascribe the whole “hey, they got you there eventually, why are you complaining it wasn’t the right day or the class of service you paid for” mentality to a form of frequent-flyer Stockholm Syndrome.

  11. The offer for refunding the fare difference between the two classes seems fair to me but what I don’t get is didn’t United realize this before the boarding process? If the equipment changed, surely it could’ve been handled prior to boarding!

  12. As I posted in Live and Let’s Fly, I’d bet this ‘higher priority’ passenger was an Air Marshall. Why else would they ask a specific person on a paid ticket (from Hawaii, likely a lot of upgrades on the flight) after the person already boarded?

    If you can figure out his seat number, I’d assume it is row 1, aisle.

  13. From this vantage point, looks to me like you’re shilling for United in an attempt to get your 15 minutes…

  14. With the perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight, everyone is now an expert in civil aviation and purports to know what ails UA and how they can fix it, or how the company is structurally unable to escape “mediocrity.” Soon, we’ll also learn that Oscar Munoz is a child molester…

    Thank heavens for short-lived internet age news cycle!

  15. I understand that sitting between a couple on their way to divorce sucks. My husband is very tall and doesn’t fit into coach seats, so he always insists on first class and/or extra room seating. It’s an inconvenience when you don’t get what you want and you may have to negotiate with the airline for a different flight if it comes down to it, but commercial airline travel is cheap. If you want guarantees and “empathy” you’ll need to pony up for private jets or at least semi-private jets because getting everything you want all the time costs.

  16. I know United is in the nations crosshairs right now, but frankly we could (and probably will be soon) talking about similar incidents on the other majors. It’s just United’s turn in the vicious cycle. Infuriating to us all, especially in this era of record Airline Industry Profits..

  17. Looks like Gary and Lucky have decided one is going to go pro airline and one anti-airline so people will read something on one blog. Get stoked up and go to the other to read what the other says and ping pong back and forth generating traffic for both. Smart.

  18. I think there are a lot of us who think it is precisely “following procedures” that is the problem, when the “procedures” are asinine. One prediction that I think I can make safely is that Munoz is going to discover that it’s time to change those procedures before we change another page of the calendar. It took him 48 hours after the Chicago fiasco to realize that the “procedures” and his own inept response were creating a devastating public relations nightmare for his company, and a light turned on that maybe stonewalling wasn’t going to be a successful way to handle it. The question is to what extent regulators and Congress get involved.

  19. Come on Gary, they didn’t know it was a replacement aircraft before they boarded the passengers? How clueless is United? They have every right to do whatever before the passengers board but afterwards? When they were are already seated?

  20. You can treat your customers like s**t for a long time and get away with it…..but one day you will reach a tipping point (last Sunday?) where you go one step too far and then you see a violent swing as people say enough is enough. Once that happens things swing in the opposite direction and all your flaws get highlighted, big and small.

    This case is clearly not in the same league as the doctors situation, but ultimately stems from the same root cause – disdain for customers – hence people lump it all together.

    UA have nobody to blame but themselves.

  21. Are we looking at a form of price fixing? Are the airlines tacitly colluding among themselves to limit the compensation to people who are bumped, knowing that they can rely on the police to enforce the arrangement? By simply making it corporate policy to offer the minimum (in this case $800) and never allowing the people on the ground to use their discretion, the airline is effectively guaranteeing that there can be no defection from the price-fixing arrangement. If, United were to defect and pay more, would all the airlines need to pay more, and would fewer people end up being forcibly removed from flights?

    People ask why United was willing to pay so high a price in bad publicity, but maybe they were balancing that against saving themselves from competition with other airlines over paying passengers who are bumped. I am starting to suspect that most airlines do the same thing (tacit collusion) and that this just blew up in United’s face, because they were more concerned with not being seen as “cheating” by the other airlines and precipitating a price war.

  22. “There’s a passenger being dragged off a plane and bloodied and then there’s people looking for their 15 minutes complaining about situations outside an airline’s control.”

    Really, you’re getting worse by the minute. Situations ‘outside’ an airline’s control? In what kind of universe do you live? Shill work must pay off handsomely I guess.

  23. The aircraft swap did not happen after the passenger boarded the plane. It looks like UA incompetence to me.

  24. @Bill

    It’s worse than that. Quite often the airline will determine that the applicable fare in this circumstance is the full Y fare. These are expensive — it wouldn’t be surprising at all to me if Y was $800 when the F fare was $1000. So that part of the game is completely rigged, even if it’s “following procedure.” It’s one of the most deck-stacked-against-the-consumer plays an airline can make.

    FWIW, United’s CoC gives them an out for denied boarding compensation when they substitute a smaller aircraft. That’s right, if there’s a downguage and you’re IDB’d, they owe you zilch according to their “procedure.”

  25. Once someone with a boarding pass is on the plane and in their seat, they should not be removed for another passenger or staff. That is the similarity, and it’s just common decency.

    If you go to a restaurant and they say that they’re overbooked and can’t seat you for another hour and give you a big voucher that’s one thing. If they seat you and then come over 15 minutes later and kick you out of your table, that’s a whole other thing.

  26. @Hari Singh – if it’s collusion it’s a cartel enforced by government which sets maximum obligation (DOT IDB rules) and limits your ability to sue

  27. Why didn’t they have a strategy for how to handle too few F seats due to equipment swap? The pax should have been handled at the gate with much better than middle seat. Coming on afterwards to mishandle this is proof of United’s going out of business incompetence, where one single incident exploded to devalue the company by a fourth. On it’s way to nowhere.

  28. Really, Gary, again with the United apologism. I suppose the next post will be dark details of this passenger’s life?

  29. @LarryInNYC said: “I can only ascribe the whole “hey, they got you there eventually, why are you complaining it wasn’t the right day or the class of service you paid for” mentality to a form of frequent-flyer Stockholm Syndrome.”

    I agree 100% with you. If this topic was discussed in FlyerTalk, the majority of responses would question the passenger and blame him (the pax) for complaining.

    Which is a horrible reality of how we’re forced to abide by these legacy carriers.

  30. Full refund is the bare minimum. He could have flown F on any number of airlines. Because he booked on UA, he didn’t get what he paid for

  31. These things are hard, and reasonable people can differ. What “reasonable people” have to realize is that these things will happen. The better you run your airline, the less frequently they’ll happen, but they’ll still happen. This business isn’t as easy as it looks, and you operate with many factors outside your control.

    Personally, I think UA’s offer is a light light. This is a terrible downgrade. I would have flown him for free and given him the $500 future flight voucher. But I don’t make the rules.

  32. Wow – once again a disappointing response from Gary – he just doesn’t seem to “get it.” And no discussion of why on earth UA would board a passenger with a confirmed seat assignment and then ask him to disembark (as happened with the poor doctor) instead of settling this issue prior to boarding. Certainly all of us have been on flights where the plane goes MX before we board, and in every situation I get a “see agent” on my boarding pass or I am paged at the gate or there is an announcement made to get a new BP. They never board first and then sort it out.

    This is a simple breach of contract situation. Customer bought paid F, United failed to perform its side of the agreement. United has a duty to mitigate, which means it should try to find a substitute method to perform. In this case that might be another United flight (it is not difficult to connect to HNL, where presumably there are many flights) or even another carrier. In fact this is what airlines used to do in the old days – they would interline with each other and then settle up later.

    Instead United offers a greatly inferior product (middle seat economy) and then tries to weasel out of providing proper compensation. All with Gary’s blessing. And FYI this is not a remote island chain, there are probably more flights options to Hawaii than to many second tier cities in the USA mainland. Now the Maldives would be a different story…

  33. If someone said to you we need the server your blog is posted on for someone more important, how would you react? If you said no and they then said, we’ll if you don’t give up the server we will handcuff and arrest you, how would you feel about that. Because that is what you are describing. How can you not see it as wrong?

  34. So when does “‘IBD” start? My wife and son were standing by for a flight. 10 minutes prior to departure, they were cleared onto the flight and issued boarding passes. They went onboard, stowed their luggage and sat down. A few minutes later, the gate agent appears and says we have connecting passengers who we didn’t think were gonna make it but they did make it so please leave the aircraft. They did.
    Was this IDB? Once they were cleared, a new boarding pass was issued and they were seated on board does this mean they are “on” that flight now and to get them off they need to be paid IDB comp? or is it just, too bad, so sad you were never really “on” this flight because your original ticket was for another flight? They had a new BP and their seat was paid for by giving up their ticket on the later flight. Needless to say Airline X refused to do anything for them from an IDB perspective but they did reinstate them to their later (original) flight without any fuss.

    What do you think is the right thing to do for Airline X?

  35. +1 @Ziggy, @Uncle Jeff, @DaveS, @tom

    At least this article suggests a step in the right direction:

    United won’t use police to remove overbooked passengers: CEO

  36. Would really like to know who is this “higher priority” person, as it will say a lot about United’s mentality and customer service orientation. Was it an air marshall, if so why was he/she not immediately assigned their seat with the aircraft change? Frankly, I doubt it was an air marshall on this route. My gut feel as a 1K for years is this person was either a Global Services member, politician or a United executive. In my experience United will do almost anything for Global Service members or others it considers important. As a relatively small example, in my case, on several occasions I have had confirmed paid first class seat changed right before a flight as a GS wanted my seat rather than a bulkhead or some other seat. When given a new boarding pass the agent’s attitude is either it could not have happened (despite having proof of original seat assignment on confirmation) or saying that they have no idea as to why. On the plane I have asked the individual in my original seat how they got it and it turned out he was GS and did not want a bulkhead or other less desirable seat.

  37. You’re wrong about this one, too, Gary, and Uncle Jeff is right.

    1: This is a classic example of United’s operational incompetence. They should get no slack cut
    2: If you buy a 1st class ticket (something I hope I never do), then any bump out of 1st, at a minimum, should get you a complete refund of your purchase price.

    In cash, no vouchers.

    That’s in addition to flying him back, for free.

    Because operational screwups are the airline’s fault, and problem, not the customers’

  38. Gary, you are wrong again- read every comment to your thread (except for your own, of course).

    Mistakes happen, which is why you have procedures in place to deal with them fairly and quickly. Change of equipment- you go through the list of passengers, including a air marshal, if one is scheduled, and assign out the new seating arrangements. If you need to bump someone out of first class, you do it according to your processes, and assign him the best possible seat in economy.

    You do this all when you know initially about the equipment change, so hopefully can find something better for him than a middle seat in the back (personally, if I was running the airlines, I’d even bump someone from their assigned seat in economy for a full fare first class passenger, but I’d be worried about satisfying my high revenue customers)…

    You don’t give someone a boarding pass to a seat, and only after he’s already boarded and sitting in that seat, ask him to vacate it for another passenger. You don’t have that right, per your CoC. I’d also point out that the passenger didn’t claim he should get his seat because “he has priority” because of his Mileage Plus status- he said “He was already on plane, already seated. He shouldn’t have to disembark.” Fake news, Gary! What’s next, are you going to find out that poor Mr. Fearns cheated on his wife or something, and post that?

    Your position is wrong, and you just don’t seem to get it. So even though I have read your blog for many years, and recommended it to others, I’m switching- time to get my frequent flyer news from someone else.

    Goodbye, Gary…

  39. Bottom line, as an ordinary consumer, from now on I will avoid booking on United Airlines, because they show no loyalty to the consumer who has bought their ticket for a certain seat! It would cost them so little to compensate their passengers fully in case of a problem, but they don’t seem to care to do this, even at the stake of their reputation. If they have to remove me from a flight I have booked, because of their own incompetence, they better make it worth it to me! As a business owner, I will do what ever it takes to retain my integrity. They have shown no integrity in accommodating their customers, even when it would cost them so little to do this! In the end it will cost them so much, compared to doing the right thing!

  40. Given that United is the only airline to have “disappeared” a flight (without any announcements to myself and other passengers ) so that it was removed from the flight departure/arrivals board rather than show as “cancelled” is reason enough that I won’t use their services again. Myself and other passengers were left to wander and inquire with other united gate personnel who directed us to a special desk. Our flight was combined with another, later flight, which didn’t leave on time anyhow (2 hours late) in order to scoop up other passengers who were running late. Sigh….

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