UA gave my seat to someone else

Old Nov 16, 15, 3:53 am
  #1  
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UA gave my seat to someone else

I wanted to share my experience with UA 2 weeks ago and see what other people think. My apologies for the length of the post.

Short Version:

1) Flight SFO - ORD - LHR - Ireland booked on fully-flexible Business Class ticket. $8687 paid. 24 hours before STD I was in possession of boarding passes with my confirmed seats on them.

2) When trying to board second airplane in Chicago, I am told that my seat has been given to another passenger of a previous flight that had been canceled. I am told that I was chosen because I was "at the end of the priority list".

3) Options offered:
a) wait over 24 hours to fly Business class (nothing is said about my onward connection to Ireland) and receive no compensation;
b) fly in Economy and receive fare difference + small amount in vouchers to fly United again. Time given to decide: 5 minutes

4) No advance notice given. No alternatives. No apologies.

5) Since I needed to be at work the following day, I accepted the downgrade to Economy.

6) A volunteer in Business class left the aircraft 45 minutes thereafter. The seat is assigned to me.

7) Most unpleasant boarding and flying experience I've experienced in my life. I was even threatened by the Chicago manager to be taken off the plane.





About 2 months ago I booked a UA ticket to fly from SFO to Ireland for a week for work. The itinerary to fly in was SFO - ORD - LHR - Ireland (3 flights). The ticket was a full-fare Business Class, and ORD-LHR was booked in UA BusinessFirst cabin. I got very little sleep the night before this, and hence I was really excited to try the BusinessFirst cabin to rest and be off to a good start of a long week at work in Ireland. And yet this proved to be the worst experience I've ever had with an airline so far.


I landed in ORD (from SFO) shortly after 3pm. After checking the boarding gate and status of my next flight on the screens, I headed to the United lounge, where I waited until around 6.15pm.

At 6.20pm, (40 minutes before takeoff) when I attempted to board the plane at gate C21, I was pulled aside by a United employee. He identified himself as the UA manager. The manager explained that the previous ORD-LHR flight was canceled, and that my BusinessFirst seat had been given taken away to accommodate a passenger of that previous flight. The manager offered just two options:
  • Take the same flight but on Economy Class, receive the fare class difference and a small amount in travel certificates to be used on United.
  • To fly on Business Class, I would have to wait over 24 hours (!) and fly to London at 9pm the following day. I was not even told what would happen to my onward connection to Ireland. The manager said that waiting for this later flight would be voluntary and as such I would not receive any compensation.

No other options were proposed. According to the agents at the gate, it was too late to reroute me via a different airport. If only they had contacted me right after I landed in Chicago, I assume this would have been an entirely different story. But that did not happen: no one from United reached out to me either by telephone or by e-mail to prevent me.

This all was said to me barely 40 minutes before takeoff. Shortly after I was explained the above “options” to reach my destination, an announcement was made to point out that “passengers not boarding within 4 minutes would lose their seat”. I felt extremely pressured.

I ask myself:
  • How is it possible that no one tried to call me as soon as I landed in Chicago to explain the situation and try to find an acceptable solution? When I checked the screens at 3pm I already noticed that the previous flight had already been canceled; hence it should have been possible to anticipate the turn of events. I would have gladly accepted to transfer anywhere else on the East Coast, Canada or Europe to reach my destination in Business Class in a timely manner.
  • I am similarly surprised that no one notified me of the change at the United lounge, where I waited over 2 hours.
  • When I asked why my seat was given away, the UA manager first said that I was “randomly selected”. When the subject was brought up some minutes later, his version changed: I was then told that “passengers with higher fare classes were given priority” over me and that I was “at the bottom of the priority list”. Since my ticket was a full-fare Business class ticket that cost $8687, I was quite surprised. Furthermore, leaving a passenger stranded in a transit airport in the middle of their trip (second flight out of three) does not seem like the most sensible decision.

In the end, since losing an entire day of work was not an option, I accepted to fly in Economy Class. Upon boarding, I explained to the purser and cabin crew the situation and my unhappiness with the seat. In the meantime, the UA manager kept coming back and forth to the plane: seats were still being rearranged. During one of his visits I asked for his name for future reference.

Soon after, a passenger in BusinessFirst left the airplane; I asked one member of the crew whether she thought it would be possible to retake the BusinessFirst seat. She advised me to walk to the front of the plane and ask the purser, who in turn advised me to talk to the UA manager. He showed up at the plane shortly after and before I even had the chance to ask him about the seemingly free seat he took me out of the plane; to my outmost shock and dismay, he threatened to take me off the plane! I was speechless. I will not forget this moment in my entire life.

He then even played the good cop / bad cop game. He said he “wanted me to be on the plane”, but that “they” (pointing to where the purser and commander were) did not. I felt utterly humiliated. At that point I just asked whether I could take the vacant BusinessFirst seat, which the UA manager finally accepted.



This was a dreadful, 1-hour boarding process full of tension and stress that I wish it never had happened. I did finally travel on a BusinessFirst seat indeed; it could have an eventless flight that would have otherwise been a good memorable experience; however, I did not get to enjoy any part of it. I won’t forget the feeling of humiliation.

A flight cancelation due to weather is no one’s fault indeed, but I am terribly disappointed of how horribly the situation was handled. I cannot understand how my seat was given away in spite of a confirmed reservation, early check-in, a very high fare class and a 3-leg itinerary. Equally hard to apprehend is the lack of alternatives proposed. If instead of waiting until right before boarding I had been contacted as soon as I landed in Chicago, there might have been acceptable alternatives for me; at the very least, it would have given me much more time to calmly process the information and options instead of pushing me to make a decision within minutes before departure.

But above all, being threatened by the UA manager to take me off the plane instants before departure was the utmost regrettable experience that I have ever experienced on any air carrier.


I wrote to UA Customer Service the day after the flight to explain what was probably the worst airline experience I have had in my entire life so far, and all they said was "We are sorry you were not happy with your last experience, we look forward to having you onboard again". Again, I am speechless. I expected at least an acknowledgement that the situation was handled horribly and that it shouldn't have happened that way. But nothing of the sort.


I am now UA Gold, which in theory should the culminating point of some sort of a trust relation between UA and me. However, I really don't know how I feel about United any longer.


What do you guys think?

Last edited by LeonS; Nov 19, 15 at 12:49 pm
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Old Nov 16, 15, 5:40 am
  #2  
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Originally Posted by LeonS View Post
What do you guys think?
The offer of fare difference plus travel certificates for the downgrade is the proper one. You say it was a small number but that flight should have been $1000+ IIRC.

As for humiliation, there's no cure nor comp for that.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 6:05 am
  #3  
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LeonS, I'm sorry to hear about your experience. It stinks, and it's not fair.

That said, this is, to some degree, par for the course at United. Your experience really divides into two parts: (1) you got downgraded; (2) you had a very bad customer service experience. I think the most important is #2. Getting downgraded... well, stuff happens, on any airline, occasionally. Somebody had to get inconvenienced.

The bad experience with the manager and the lack of an advance call, though... yeah. It's not necessarily common, but this is an area ("service recovery") where United has been pretty bad at least since the merger. If you continue to fly United, expect that this can happen. It's unlikely to happen to you again soon, but on the occasions when the fecal matter hits the fan, you should not rely on United to treat you nicely, gently, or reasonably. We had a saying around here for a while: "Flying United is not for amateurs." You gotta know the rules, be prepared to fight, have a thick skin, and always be prepared. Otherwise, try to book non-US carriers (or Delta as a last resort).

Now, about the downgrade. You asked how this could happen. Obviously I don't know the details, but it sounds like after the early flight canceled, they were trying to cram 2 airplanes worth of passengers onto one flight. Even if you were booked in full fare J, there were two categories of passengers with higher priority:

1. Any GlobalFirst fares.
2. Any Global Services (top tier elite) passengers with any business class fare.

If the earlier flight had a GlobalFirst cabin, then it's entirely possible that there were 20-30 passengers getting pushed onto your flight who had higher priority. And although in normal circumstances passengers with confirmed seat assignments don't get trumped by rebookings, this particular situation (an entire international flight goes MX) is not normal circumstances. So it's entirely possible that 20+ passengers on your flight got bumped out of biz, including all upgraders, all discount J fares, and you.

It's still not fair or right, but that's how it may have happened.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 6:45 am
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Originally Posted by LeonS View Post
What do you guys think?
Bad that it happened. If you can't get over it vote with your wallet and take your future business elsewhere.


SL
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Old Nov 16, 15, 6:51 am
  #5  
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Op... So sorry. This really is unfortunate.

Contact United, but stick to the issues. (The fact that you got little sleep before, and even you felt stressed are not core).

Good luck!
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Old Nov 16, 15, 7:19 am
  #6  
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Inexcusable.

Second similar report in the past week. UA is really on a roll here.

Did they give the $1000 travel voucher and a substantial cash refund?
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Old Nov 16, 15, 7:29 am
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Originally Posted by zrs70 View Post
Contact United, but stick to the issues. (The fact that you got little sleep before, and even you felt stressed are not core).
Think he's been down that road already. I'm surprised that he got such a minimal response when he's traveling on a fare of over $8,000. That's my entire airfare budget for the year. How hard would it be to have someone call and apologize when this amount of revenue - or loss of future revenue in this price range - could be in play? Do they have so many customers spending $8,000 on tickets that they can afford to write some of them off?

Originally Posted by LeonS View Post
I wrote to UA Customer Service the day after the flight to explain what was probably the worst airline experience I have had in my entire life so far, and all they said was "We are sorry you were not happy with your last experience, we look forward to having you onboard again". Again, I am speechless. I expected at least an acknowledgement that the situation was handled horribly and that it shouldn't have happened that way. But nothing of the sort.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 8:20 am
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When he threatened to toss you off the plane you should not have been all that worried. That action would have turned this into an IDB situation and greatly increased your compensation (assuming that you didn't do anything to warrant such removal).

File a DOT complaint. This behavior is inexcusable and unfortunately UA and the other airlines have bribed the US govt (through lobbyists) such that you have no other avenues for redress.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 9:20 am
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wow - this is absolutely insane!

My expectations with UA's customer service are very low, but this really is quite something.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 9:26 am
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The problem is that when the customer bought the ticket, there was probably a 6-7k difference in the price of the economy ticket and the businessFirst ticket. The difference that United would offer him on the day is the difference between what he paid months ago, and the FULL WALK UP UNRESTRICTED economy ticket on the day. The difference is usually minimal at that point. Comically, it is not even the difference between the walk up fare of Business and walk up economy fare. They take the cheapest of options that you could have paid and the most expensive option that they could have charged you.

The customer won't get 25% of the actual difference, they'll get a token amount and United will find itself (Yet again) with another group of customers that will never fly them again.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 9:32 am
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Originally Posted by Soccerdad1995 View Post
When he threatened to toss you off the plane you should not have been all that worried. That action would have turned this into an IDB situation and greatly increased your compensation (assuming that you didn't do anything to warrant such removal).
That was my concern: could I be taken off the plane for not shutting up? I feared being accused of something like "passenger was not cooperating", "passenger was making a scene", "passenger's attitude could have represented a danger during the flight" or other similarly vague accusation that I would struggle to defend myself from.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 9:40 am
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Originally Posted by Soccerdad1995 View Post
When he threatened to toss you off the plane you should not have been all that worried....
At that point the passenger does need to worry that it might escalate (right or wrong) into a situation that the airport police are called. FAs, GAs, and the Captain (who will get a one-sided story) have a lot of discretion. One's chance of claiming IDB becomes a lot less at that point. It is not worth it to continue acting in a disagreeable manner. There are two outcomes: 1) It can end badly. 2) I doesn't end badly, but it changes nothing.

Last edited by IAH-OIL-TRASH; Nov 16, 15 at 9:48 am
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Old Nov 16, 15, 9:45 am
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The scenario of 20-30 F + GS passengers ahead of you seems extremely unlikely. I believe all three ORD-LHR flights are 3-class 767, with 6 F (1 blocked off) and 26 C seats. The chances of 5 F passengers and another 15-25 GS seems remote at best.

So, assuming they did this by status, another question becomes why are they giving 1K's on a cancelled flight seats taken from a full-fare passenger on a following flight? I would have been very upset too.

Also, and more importantly, why isn't UA making an effort to re-book those disserviced passengers, GS or otherwise, on another airline? Really poor form on UA's part.

We all hate to experience cancelled flights, but even as a 1K I realize that its going to happen to me on occasion. I don't expect them to be off-loading full-boat passengers to accommodate me, but I sure expect them to re-book me as necessary to get me to my final destination.

It sounds like the whole situation was very poorly handled, but I'm glad you finally got to sit in the C seat!
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Old Nov 16, 15, 9:47 am
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Originally Posted by tom911 View Post
Think he's been down that road already. I'm surprised that he got such a minimal response when he's traveling on a fare of over $8,000. That's my entire airfare budget for the year. How hard would it be to have someone call and apologize when this amount of revenue - or loss of future revenue in this price range - could be in play? Do they have so many customers spending $8,000 on tickets that they can afford to write some of them off?
I contacted UA twice per e-mail.

The first time they wrote this:

Originally Posted by UA
We do our best to accommodate individual seat requests, but
unfortunately, due to potential operational changes, we are not able to
guarantee seat assignments. Advance seat assignments are offered as a
courtesy to our customers, and we hope to be able to do so for you in
the future.
After I replied saying that my disappointment with UA is only increasing due to the answer, they wrote:

Rest assured that we want to do everything we can to ensure that your travel needs are met. We understand air travel isnít always easy, which is why we continually focus on improving our products and services.

We value your feedback regarding seating, and from what you describe, we failed to meet your expectations for providing good service. Please accept my sincere apologies.
I wonder whether they even read my message honestly.
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Old Nov 16, 15, 9:50 am
  #15  
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Originally Posted by LeonS View Post
I contacted UA twice per e-mail.
Pick up the phone. You may still get a canned response, but at least you can escalate it if need be.
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