Sometimes even the most diligent planning and scrupulous attention to detail cannot save an ill-fated trip from self-destruction. Take this recent lurid account of mitchmu regarding a United ticket from San Francisco to Panama City via Houston.
Keep in mind that this person is an experienced traveler–someone like me who after years of flying over 100K+ miles each year knows what is going on–
I purchased two first class tickets (paid Z) to fly SFO-IAH-PTY in November for myself and companion.
I needed to be in Panama City on Jan 16, so I purchased the flight for Jan 14, allowing a full two-day buffer to allow for any reasonably foreseeable type of IRROP.
I selected seats for all segments at time of booking. I monitored the reservation and the seat assignments every few weeks to ensure that they were still in place. I printed the itinerary, which showed booking classes and seat assignments, a day before departure.
The day before check-in, I received an email asking me to check-in online. My online check-in request was refused, because the system said my passport needed to be verified, yet again. This, despite the fact that I have flown more than 500,000 international miles on UA on the same passport including no fewer than 4-6 trips with this passport under SHARES.
After being denied check-in online, I received an automated phone call from United, asking me to check-in again. This time, I just ignored it.
I arrived at SFO at 5:00am for a 6:39am departure, allowing a full 1:40 for any foreseeable snafus during the check-in process.
I handed my bags to the check-in agent outside the airport. He said that the computer would not allow him to accept my bags, so he took me to the interior check-in area.
After checking in, I was handed a boarding pass that had “***” for the seat. I was told that there was no seat for me or my companion and that seats would be given to us at the gate. I explained that I paid for first class and that I did have a seat assignment. The agent said that I didn’t pay for first class, and that I was wait-listed for an upgrade. I produced the itinerary (step 3) to show her that it was a paid first class ticket and to show her the seat assignments that I had less than 24 hours ago. She told me that I didn’t pay for first class and I never requested a seat and there was nothing more she could do. She said that as far as she could tell, the aircraft was down-gauged from an A320 to an A320. That is not a typo. But, there was nothing she could do, because we never had seats in the first place!…
There were two segments. SFO-IAH and IAH-PTY. Both of those segments were in paid first class and both had confirmed seats. Our assigned seats were taken away on all flights, all segments. As far as she could tell, there were no issues with the IAH-PTY flight. She said I was “wait-listed” for seats in first class on the second leg, despite the fact that I had paid for seats in first class, and had confirmed seats at time of booking, and had checked those seats every few weeks, and had printed out the confirmed seat assignments less than 24 hours before.
This entire process lasted 1 hour. When 6:00am approached, I realized that there was no further point in arguing, because I needed to get to the gate for the 6:39am departure. So, they printed two boarding passes. Each of them had no seat assignment (the seat was listed as ***) and the passes had no bar code on them.
The TSA agent refused entry to us because the passes were not valid without a bar code. They forced us to go back to the check-in area and said we could not enter the airport without a valid boarding pass with a bar code.
[A United] manager walked back with us to the TSA and pleaded with them to let us through. The TSA refused. He asked for a supervisor. They got a supervisor. The supervisor refused. He asked for an escalation and they got the next higher supervisor. She refused. He told them that there was nothing else he could do and that this was a valid boarding pass. The supervisor of the supervisor got on the phone with TSA HQ to ask for an exception. All this went on for 30 minutes. We were now 9 minutes from departure. Finally, she got approval from HQ and allowed us through. I could not use Pre-Check since the system could not scan me.
When we got to the gate, the gate agent presented us with forms to sign that said we were volunteering to give up our seats! I refused to sign the form and I told them there was nothing whatsoever voluntary about their refusal to give us the seats we had paid for, confirmed, and held for more than 2 months. They said that we could not get on the airplane unless we signed that paper. We fought about this for several minutes and I insisted that under no condition was I going to sign a legal document saying that I was volunteering to give up my seat. The interaction almost came to physical blows when I started tearing up that form and the manager grabbed it back from me.
When it became clear that we could not be manipulated, we were given boarding passes for middle seats in economy, in separate rows from each other, and told to get on the plane.
What’s most astounding about this experience is that all of these agents are UA veterans with 10-20 years experience. I knew 3 out of 4 of them. While this behavior is standard at EWR or IAH, the fact that old-time veterans who had delivered consistently excellent service have devolved to this kind of behavior is, well, I’m just at a loss for words.
Upgrades are gone. A game of bait and switch. Nothing but lies. I get it. So, I step up to the plate and buy a Z fare, and they throw me into a middle seat in economy. This is far and away a new low, and this airline has reached a depth that I never even imagined possible.
Something sinister is going on at United. Turns out there was an equipment swap from an A320 to an A319 on his flight, so first class went from 12 to 8 seats. Certainly, in such a situation four people must lose their premium seats if the cabin is booked full. But who should those four be?
For all the talk about valuing transactional loyalty from Smisek and Co, this passenger purchased a paid business class ticket, was a 1K flyer, and had seats assigned in the second row (a row that was not affected by the equipment swap). I would wager a guess–since he was continuing on to an international destination and could not check-in online, he was one of the last in the cabin to check-in and that’s why he lost his seat. All the domestic travelers going only to Houston or some other point in the U.S. who checked in online earlier received seats. Perhaps everyone in first class was booted from their seat after the equipment swap. There is no accountability in the land of Continental Airlines.
But that’s actually not the saddest part of this story.
First, the check-in agent at SFO could not even see that he was ever in a premium cabin. How could that be? And then the gate agent–a legacy UA gate agent–tried to coerce the traveler into signing a “voluntary downgrade” form.
How can an airline do business like this? It is shameful and I am sorry to say that I am not at all surprised. For my experience at Burbank Airport last week was similar in a way–no explanation or notation on the record regarding my downgrade to economy class; I was left to duke it out with the gate agent (thankfully, we found a suitable compromise).
This story illustrates that even the most careful planning may simply end up not mattering in the end. This guy constantly checked his reservation and seat assignments, tried to check in online, showed up to the airport early, but still did not get what he had paid for.
When this happens, there is no need to grin and bear it, but we should grin–like the girl with the delayed flight last week should have done–and do our best to capitalize on the situation. Mitchmu acted exactly as I would have at the airport. He’s considering legal action now against United and I am sure I would too if this had happened to me. But as an observer with some legal background, I would do my best to settle with United out of court. Seek two $1,000 vouchers or a refund of half the ticket price (even though he did travel in economy to Houston and business to Panama City).
An equipment downgrade, as was the case here, means United really did not “IDB” this person and was legally justified to move him to economy class. But United handled this situation very poorly and there is simply no excuse for a system that cannot even determine whether one booked a business class ticket or not.
My sympathies to mitchmu.