I Want “My” Airline To Do Better

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At heart I am a rule follower. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t “gray areas” with some things, but when there is a clear rule for something, odds are you will find me following it (most of the time – I’m nowhere near perfect). Being a more-or-less rule follower, I get pretty annoyed when others don’t follow the rules, and it ends up impacting me negatively. Call it shenanigans, call it laziness, call it different priorities, call it whatever you want, but I am pretty certain that Monday’s United flight 1502 from Atlanta to Houston did not follow the rules, and it impacted my family. Cue Mama Bear….growl!

We found ourselves done with our scenic drive back from Tennessee, and at the Atlanta airport in time to catch an earlier flight. Since I earned Platinum status with United last year, I have the ability to do same day changes for free instead of paying $75 a pop. This is a huge part of the reason I wanted status in the first place as I like to get home as soon as possible without having a financial penalty for doing so. I literally use this dozens of times per year. This should have been as easy as hopping online and changing the three of us to an earlier flight. However, on the outbound flight the computer system had split all three of us onto different reservations due to the way the upgrade system works. Fair enough, we knew that would happen. So, instead of hitting the easy button and taking care of the issue online, we waited in line and did it at check-in at the airport. Thankfully, we got a very awesome check-in agent who understood the issue completely, and got all of us changed to an earlier flight, got my daughter added as my upgrade eligible companion, and got us three E+ seats together in the meantime. He rocked, and was the absolute highlight of our United experience at the Atlanta airport.

We then got through the very large airport and to the gate at about 25-30 minutes before departure. From checking the United mobile app I knew that every single person on the upgrade list could clear, and there would still be seats leftover in first. The E+ seats were mostly empty as well. So, I saw no likely reason why the three of us would not all clear without issue into the first class cabin. We could all sit together in bigger seats and with “all the snacks and juice you can drink” (the highlight of first for a three year old…well, and for me).

During our trek to the gate I was auto-upgraded to first. My daughter sat as #1 on the upgrade standby list and my husband was #4, and still the whole list could clear with room to spare. When we got to the gate, the gate agent seemed very flustered and started immediately gate tagging our car seat (despite my husband’s calm yet eloquent protests) even though we said it was going on-board. I also said I really wanted to hang back and see what our eventual seats would be since it looked like we would probably clear into first and I didn’t want to install the car seat twice.

However, she acted very rushed and stressed and said to just get on-board right now even though push back was not imminent and the flight was literally going to go out half-empty. I’m a rule follower, so I did what I was told without incident. Since we were now a bit flustered ourselves not knowing where we would all end up sitting (but still thinking we would all land in the same cabin), we did leave the car seat with the other gate check items at the end of the jet bridge.

My husband took my seat in first and C and I went to our E+ seats. I figured it would just be a few minutes before the gate agent came on-board and gave us our first class seat assignments (as is relatively common). I kept checking the mobile app to make sure nothing crazy happened that would prevent our upgrades, but we all stayed theoretically in the clear.

As it got closer to departure, my husband came back with our car seat and installed it for C. I’m not exactly sure how/why this happened, but it did. Then a few minutes later the gate agent came back and told me that it wasn’t approved for the flight and I needed to take my daughter out of the seat. I stayed calm and polite with her, but did ask what the problem was. She then sort of accused me of having her as a lap child yet using a real seat, and implied that was the issue. I explained she was a ticketed passenger (plus there were 100 empty seats on the plane anyway), and again asked what the problem with the seat was. The flight attendant was now with her and I asked him. He shrugged and didn’t really answer. She then just said it was not approved and I needed to remove my child. She also said my daughter was big enough to fly without it. I said she may be, but she is only three, and is safer and more comfortable for her in the seat than without, so we use it – it is a FAA approved car seat.

Of course everyone around us is now staring which makes everything more fun. I don’t want to get into it with the apparently grumpy agent or delay the flight, so I take C out of her seat (which of course she is upset about and starts crying), and the seat gets taken off the plane for reasons I still don’t understand at all. The most logical of all the “reasons” that the gate agent gave me as to why we couldn’t use the seat was that it had been tagged as gate check, so we couldn’t then change our minds, though that still all seems bizarre. Of course, she threw many other reasons in there as well. It was all very unnecessarily chaotic. If there is a rule we broke then just state that rule and leave all the other commentary out. I have no clue if we even did break a rule, but I know that I never wanted the car seat checked in the first place.

Once that mini-drama was over I still thought the three of us would be reunited in the same cabin. However, a few minutes later the cabin doors shut with about 10 of 20 first class seats still open.  In case you want to play along at home, here are the screen shots from my phone taken as I started to get suspicious that things weren’t going the way they should.  You can see that with 9 minutes until scheduled departure there were 10 cleared into first, 10 seats still open and at least 5 on the upgrade standby list.  I think there ended up being 6 or 8 on the list, but I can’t remember for sure.


20130204-212307.jpgThat was how the list remained until I logged on after we landed to see what they had made the list look like…I totally expected to see we had all “cleared” into F, even though we hadn’t.  Interestingly enough it showed my daughter “C” had cleared into 5B though she sat in coach.  My husband had my seat in 1B which had automatically cleared before the flight.  It didn’t show that he cleared at all though he obviously should have at #4 on the standby list before the door closed and with several seats still open.


The only explanation was that none of the upgrades were ever processed at the gate. If you didn’t auto-clear in advance, you didn’t clear at all. There is no other explanation for what happened as there were many open seats and many upgrade eligible passengers on the list (including my little companion). There was a small stampede of non-rev passengers from E+ to F as soon as the doors shut, but even after that there were six first class seats left open for the duration of the flight.

So now we lost our car seat, had our kid start crying as a direct result of being removed from the seat, and didn’t all sit in the first class seats we should have been in. Not cool. I’m a tad annoyed, so it is highly possible that I am coming off as an “over-entitled United elite flyer”. However, I did not end up with Platinum status because it floated down from the clouds and landed on my pillow one night. I earned Platinum status by being away from my family and staying loyal to one airline….United. This cost time and money, but the rewards for the status, at least as they are listed, made it “worth it” for my family to plan my travels that way.

The way their upgrade systems works in terms of splitting reservations for upgrades is totally bizarre/broken, but even that we now expect and will do our best to plan around. However, when a gate agent erroneously forces us to check our car seat and doesn’t process upgrades at all, that is just crazy and it impacts our traveling experience (as well as everyone else’s that should have been in first). I don’t care what they want to make the rules – that is their business. However, as a customer, I expect them to follow their own rules and not shaft customers out of things to which they are (over)entitled.

The on-board crew was nice and we made it to our destination safely and on time. In the end, that is all that really matters, but this whole experience leaves a very sour taste in my mouth. I don’t like to say bad things about “my” airline. It’s kind of like saying bad things about “your” sports team. You would rather they just win the Super Bowl every year and you have nothing to complain about. But no team always make it to the Super Bowl, and sometimes you need to do well in the draft, or swap some coaches around in order to improve. In this case, I think United should be doing better than what happened today.  There were multiple failures and they all could be avoided.  They can do better than this. I sure as heck hope they do better than this in the future.

So, what do you think? I know they are busy, but is it over-entitled to expect a gate agent to process upgrades? Is it okay to be annoyed as you sit in coach with a clear view of empty first class seats when your upgrade “didn’t clear”? Has something like this happened to you?

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  1. I don’t want to get in trouble for being critical of “your airline”, but I’m a lot happier they’re yours rather than mine. 🙂

    Just my opinion, but United has a fundamental problem with accountability. Bad employees are not held accountable. Bad processes are not fixed. I spent last year as a 1K and dealt with many of the same issues you dealt.

    And, unfortunately, it happened a couple times when I was traveling with my family, which really pisses me off. I can tolerate a work flight going bad, but the kids don’t understand when the rules are changed.

    This is a primary reason why I’ve had roughly a dozen flights this year on AA and only one on UA thus far. Is AA perfect? No. But, their deficiencies are not in the customer service area, IMO. It’s in route network, fleet condition, etc.

    United has an awesome route network. But, there’s nothing else, IMO, they excel at. As a Platinum, you are entitled to the benefits you earned, no doubt, and should be rightfully upset you didn’t get them.

    But, what I think is of even greater concern is that the gate agent took no time to consider that someone who traveled 75,000 miles on their airline last year might be worth taking an extra minute or two to figure out the car seat issue in a respectful way, especially given she wasn’t having to worry about loading a full flight.

    Sorry to hear about your experience, but it doesn’t surprise me.

  2. You are absolutely entitled to be annoyed. There are two things that were handled wrong, car seat and upgrades, and you should expect both of them to be handled properly. It sounds like it was pretty much the gate agent that messed up both. Maybe there was a reason she was so flustered that day. Not your fault, but life happens sometimes. I’d want an apology and a few “we’re sorry” miles thrown my way by United.

  3. I completely understand why you were/are so annoyed. You earned that status and should expect the rewards/amenities it provides. At the very least you should get a reasonable and polite explanation if you don’t get those rewards. I hope you follow up with United with your concerns.

  4. When you blog about a bad experience on United, does someone from the airline ever contact you to discuss the issue? This seems like a clear case of employees just not caring about the companies internal procedures.

    However, the airline not allowing you to use a FAA approved car seat is a much bigger problem. That is not a company rule, rather it is an FAA regulation backed by the force of law. They could be fined for this violation. Also, United should care about this since if god forbid something ever were to happen to a child after the airline had refused to let a parent use a FAA aproved child seat, their liability would be near unlimited.

  5. I sympathize with your annoyance.

    I had an experience in Miami recently the Sunday after Thanksgiving when I paid an AAnytime award redemption and was entitled to priority seating. I had selected row 8 window seat. As I was boarding, the gate agent grabbed my boarding pass, made me wait and then handed me a boarding pass to a middle seat in row 38!!! That’s 150+ people getting off before me filling up the taxi line on a Sunday night in LaGuardia when I need to be at work at 7:30 am… and the flight is already delayed! She told me they changed planes and my row no longer existed (not taken, no longer exists!) If I’m not happy, I can fly the next day. I took down her name and contemplated writing to complain about these blatant lies as I walked by my seat in row 8, which was clearly still there.

    Of course, your situation is worse as there were clearly empty seats in first while my plane was full.

  6. This was a pretty good write up. Add names, frequent flyer numbers, etc. and send it to customer service. You should get some compensation, but the important part is to give them the information needed to take corrective actions. Yes, your airline is your airline, specific information helps management address problems. That, of course, assumes they want to fix problems – if not try making another airline your airline.

  7. The last time I was ‘downgraded’ (upgraded but ended up sitting in the back) I got $500 as downgrade compensation. If you are interested there are also rules governing your situation that might be worth looking into – you have the upgrade screen shots and probably kept your boarding passes?

  8. @MP,

    Very well written. Your experience is a major screwup by UA, and you’re unquestionably *entitled* to an abject apology and compensation. Since this isn’t your first rodeo, I’m guessing you’ve already contacted UA through social media — and I’m guessing somebody will indeed fall all over themselves to apologize, since you’ve documented multiple significant errors. But, again, I commend you on what I think is the most levelheaded writeup of this sort of catastrophe that I’ve seen.

  9. “The way their upgrade systems works in terms of splitting reservations for upgrades is totally bizarre/broken” Another innovation brought to you by the folks at CO.

    Sorry you had so much trouble. Seems like an email to UA is in order. Could always cc Jeffrey to see if he does anything.

  10. What a frustrating experience! You earned status and were treated as if you did not have any. Please let us know how United responds.

    (On an unrelated note, I flew from JFK to LAX last night in business on AA and had a lot of work to do and the overhead light did not work – making it impossible to read the scripts I had to finish. First world problems for sure, but exacerbating nonetheless – I read the dinner menu in the lav)

  11. -Glad to hear I have not totally lost my mind and this was indeed a “whoops” moment(s) by UA. (At least I think that is good…still wish it wouldn’t have happened at all).
    -Sorry, but not surprised, that others have had similar experiences.
    -Ireland is imminent. This was a short two day trip that my husband wanted (long story), and the mountains/hills in Tennessee were very scenic. Some were even snow covered. Beautiful drive through a part of the country I hadn’t covered on the ground before.
    -I did tweet UA about the experience last night and was essentially told to just file a complaint, which is all I expected to be told. Def no one “falling over themselves to apologize”….not that I expected that at all. I just really want them to do better.
    -Some of this was tied to a specific gate agent, but still it is also tied to larger systemic problems. The flight attendant could have spoken up when I turned to him about the car seat. The computer system could have auto-upgraded all of us before boarding given how many empty seats were available, etc.

  12. Like you, i want them to do better, am not just looking for compensation. Last week at the HKG United Club, the staff at the entrance was unfriendly and i tweeted UA that it is not that hard for lounge staff to be welcoming to their customers, and I have a paid lounge membership. This was my first trip to what was supposedly the nicest lounge in their system and left me disappointed. I should have just gone to the TG lounge next door.

    Like you, I received a tweet back to file a complaint, which is not what i wanted. Just fix the problem.

  13. Carl, so agree. My complaints aren’t compensation motivated (in fact the thought of compensation didn’t even enter my head til someone mentioned it to me). I just want them to do better. Much better. Sorry you had that experience.
    Heather, it was a “small stampede by non-rev passengers”. These were United employees who were flying coach and moved up after the boarding door closes since there were open F seats. They have that ability, but if passengers tried to do it the flight attendants would not be okay with it.

  14. I think the service you received was not up to par with what United would expect of its employees. I also understand your frustration as I too travel with a small child and try to navigate the various issues that arise as a result. But who cares about not getting your “free” upgrade to first for you and your daughter? Been there before as a 1K…annoying, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had upgrade issues as a result of poor service or IT glitches. It happens…in the end, my life goes on…still have a family to sit with and the ability to travel to some pretty amazing places. Raise the issue with United as to poor service and advise them of IT issues with the hope that someday it gets fixed, but leave it at that.

  15. I tried to use an upgrade. 1K line told me to talk to the gate agent, who told me to talk to customer service, who told me to talk to the United Club, who told me “computer says no.” I go back to gate agent, who tells me to talk to 1K line, who says “no problem!” but puts me on hold for 30 minutes while the plane is boarding. I got it in the end, but it was incredibly annoying.

  16. Scott, I agree it is not the end of the world at all, however it is a real problem to have people not getting the benefits they earned. I don’t think my issue was isolated. I think there are many systemic issues at play that are disproportionately impacting United’s most loyal customers. Some are IT issues and some are employee issues. Add to that the car seat issue and it truly was a rotten experience that I hope others can avoid in the future. Sorry to hear you have also had some similar experiences.
    Scottrick, ugh. Does it have to be this hard? I’m really starting to think that going for upgrades causes at least as much stress as it can possibly reduce!

  17. I agree with MP here. There are systemic IT issues that lead to these types of things happening significantly more than they should. I just chose to stop reporting the issues and moved my business instead.

  18. I’d be more pissed about the car seat.. I travel with my kids all the time. One time, a GA wouldn’t let me bring a seat on, I did anyway (since I paid for my kids tkt). Ended up having to show the FA’s the FAA certified sticker on it. They told the GA to go away..

  19. Yes bad IT and agents without enough training. In a similar cases I just leave my phone on and then just change seats, or I try to board very late. What’s with UA starting boarding at T-45?

    Shares is costing United way more money than it saves them (it apparently save about $100 million a year). I have seen more than one irate global services customers getting very indignant when the system fails to process the upgrades.

    You should consider applying for downgrade compensation?

  20. I had a very similar expirience with United when my son was around 3 months old. GA wouldn’t let us upgrade or board early because of the infant. We didnt auto clear either. I ended up telling her in a very loud (very frustrated) voice that she didn’t know the rules and I needed to speak with a supervisor immediatly. We ended up with two $75 vouchers. Big whoop. Do your job. It was this and another incident which prompted me to try a switch in loyalty.

  21. On the car seat issue MP, have you looked into the CARES harness? It’s what we always use and have never had a problem with any airline. Plus it folds up compactly into a booksack or carry on. We’re of booster age, so the kid stuff gets a lot easier at 5. The Go Go Babyz also served us well as a stroller and car seat through airports.

    • Askia, we do have the CARES harness, and it is good. However, we could with our kiddo she is much more comfortable in the car seat. We have close to 100% success rate of sleeping on the plane in the car seat and a very low percentage of plane naps (of any duration) in the harness or just the lap belt.

  22. Not a surprising story at all, but sad nevertheless. An IT system with labyrinthine complexities, interpreting rules equally as complicated and non-accountable staff lead to too many incidents of this nature. And one bad incident counts for far more than ten good ones.

    As a United 1K, I generally get treated very well (still). But somehow when it goes wrong, it’s always at the worst time and when family are present.

    Recently it happened when I was travelling with my wife’s 80 year old aunt on her first long haul trip. The outbound flight was cancelled and I had to fight hard to get re-accommodated on the same day (threats of EU261 finally did it but never elicited any apologies). And, on the return in Global First, check in took 40 minutes because, although they could see the reservation, it wasn’t showing up in the system. The flustered agent unintentionally left my aunt feeling she’d done something wrong and she ended up nearly in tears. Again, there was no apology of any sort or any attempt to make matters right.

    It’s such a strange airline.95% of staff, and so many of their systems, dedicate themselves to making the life of elites better. But then the remaining 5% are so terribly terribly bad that it lets everyone down – and I end up wishing I’d booked another airline without status as I’d be less embarrassed about my choices.

  23. Not over entitled at all.

    You earned the benefits and deserve the upgrade if the seat is available. The GA unwillingness to permit the carseat is just outrageous. Everyone occasionally has a bad day but this seems to well exceed that bar…

  24. You should send all the details to Carlos. They should be able to both trace who the GA was and audit what was done. But do it right away as the data may not remain around for long.

    I had a good experience at the HKG UC about 2 weeks ago.

  25. Not at all over-entitled. You were supposed to get upgraded because that’s supposed to be how it works. I’d be upset too.

    But in the end, I’m not terribly surprised. Thumbs down to United.

  26. I’m glad you wrote about it. Such incidents deserve the publicity. The one that is over-entitled is the UA employee. They want to get a salary and benefits but do the minimum amount of work. I agree that 95% are great employees but the rest can be a real pain. I’m pretty sure in your case it was laziness to some extent, but also a power trip. The GA just wanted to screw around with all those potential F passengers. Have seen that many times. And she told you to remove the car seat, just because she could. And if you kept protesting or lost your cool, i’m pretty sure she would have been happy to take you off the flight. That would have made her day!

  27. If you get this far down in the comments, Hi! 🙂

    As a regular reader of your blog, here is what I need you to do.

    First, write United an email or letter explaining the situation and note the gate agents info (as best you can). Tell them this is not acceptable; not because you are Platinum (although that is a good reason, too), rather because your readers are families and taking away an approved car seat is unacceptable.

    Second, write a follow-up post on how we, traveling families without status, should handle this type situation (frazzled GA that makes up the rules, confiscation of car seat, etc). While flight attendants have authority in the air, does a gate agent have the same authority on the ground? If you asked for a manager or the Captain, causing a delay in the flight, would this be an acceptable option? What do WE do?

    Thanks for confiding in us. Personally, I would have been tempted to wield the blogger hammer of justice on the GA (asking for name, then letting her know you’ll be writing about their conduct to management, the FAA, and on the blog). That would have caused her significant pause.

  28. Oh, and as PizzaInMotion says, United isn’t very good as an airline. While all US based airlines kind of stink, UA is one of the worst in customer service. Just my opinion, and why I choose not to fly them out of PDX despite having the lowest fares and best flight times.

  29. Don’t know what the problem is here – at least your pilot was not unconscious, asleep or drunk. Alaska, Transavia, and British Airways passengers were not so lucky this past week. Sure, LC missed her car seat, but at least her passenger seat did not fall over like those seats on American last fall nor did the retracting skylight open like on that 2011 Southwest flight. Y’all got an A Ticket ride, not an E Ticket ride.

  30. ADK, ha ha. So true. 😉
    Jamison (and others), I have submitted a formal complaint, as has my husband. Mostly just to get it on record, but I will keep you all posted what comes of it…if anything.
    Chris, as to what you should do in this situation… Well, you see what I did. I could have kept pushing about the car seat and may have won, but it would have almost certainly escalated very quickly as the GA was not budging and the FA was not picking sides other than backing up the GA. It may very well be worth pushing and just deal with what comes. If you have an FAA approved carseat (as I did), you should be allowed to fly with it. Though you can be removed from the flight if you cause a ruckus in the process…and I didn’t want that.

  31. Very sorry to hear your experience. If AA still does status matching, perhaps give that a thought so you won’t have to start from scratch again if you choose to put your loyalty on AA (I’m a loyal Continental… now United flyer.)
    As for UA, did you ask the gate agent about the first class seats and when they’d fill up the rest of the seats before the door was closed? I know it would have been awkward but no hurt in asking. Technically you did get a first class seat as a platinum member (you just gave that seat to your husband.)
    Another factor to consider is that the gate agent didn’t have time to process the upgrades due to the car seat fiasco? Just a thought.
    For a half-empty flight, the service from UA should have definitely been better.

  32. The problem here is that you were flying UA. I had several experiences like this with gate agents several decades ago, and have not flown them since. I’d tell you to do what I did, which is fly AA instead. Except that I understand you live in a UA hub, and driving to an AA hub is out of the question.

    Since complaining to corporate doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, I’d say a formal complaint to the FAA about the car seat might be the way to go.

  33. All this sounds like why I don’t fly United with my son anymore (I’m a Platinum also). I’ve seen him be #1 on the upgrade list, and then had people behind him “cut in line” and clear upgrade when he didn’t. The only time the companion upgrades have worked out for us is when a gate agent handled it. I’ve also had them give away our seat assignments in coach when we didn’t get upgraded. How the hell that happened, I have no idea. Then there was drama about getting a window for the car seat (their rules, not mine). The airline has some fundamental problems they need to work out (including how they talk to and treat families with children) and until then I’m not subjecting my family to it any more. Sorry to read about your experience. I know how disappointing it is. I’ve been a United flyer all of my life and am creeping up on a Million Miles. It’s hard to walk away when I’m this close. I share the sentiment that I expect and want more out of “our” airline! Anyway, what’s done is done. I’d contract Customer relations (sounds like you probably did already) and be happy with whatever they throw at you.

  34. I could ignore the lack of upgrade but not the taking of the car seat…unacceptable!!!! They give these people too much power & it’s abused a lot. Booooo United!!

  35. Sorry to hear about your experience but the CPU system is just awful for parties of more than 1. The “PNR splitting” screws everything up. Like another respondent above, I really don’t care so much when I am traveling alone. The time you want your airline to shine is when the family is along, and that seems like when United is at its worst. I have resorted to locking in the upgrade with an RPU, miles or money for my wife and son if I am flying with them, and take my chances alone.

  36. I think it is also interesting to consider how you’d want to teach your child to act and handle such a situation, especially if they were in a rebellious know-it-all phase where manners tend to go out the window.

    Personally, I think it is fine to believe other people will do their jobs competently and encourage that by giving them more business. When people don’t do their jobs well, though… Think about how you’d want C to grow up to handle this kind of situation. Often how adults respond under stress and the lessons they objectively teach their children are two different things.

    Honestly, sometimes it does seem (to me) that standing near a desk or podium wearing the airline uniform can result in a bad day if you don’t thrive on conflict or drama. Some people treat GAs very poorly. Sometimes a bad day just seems to snowball from an incident that had nothing to do with you or your flight. At least, that’s what I tell myself and it usually seems to keep my blood pressure within reasonable limits.

  37. Remember that when it comes to seating, the GA is the powerful being that grants the seat moves. They also do upgrade magic. Don’t piss them off. That said, you are entitled to upgrades and reasonable explanation on why rules are not beig followed.

  38. I agree with others who’ve said that you should be asking for downgrade compensation (cash) rather than customer service compensation (vouchers), given that two of your were forced to sit in coach despite the computer eventually showing that you were in fact upgraded. Probably the gate agent was friends with the non-revs who took the seats.

  39. Summer, any response from UA? I’m a plat too and had filed two complaints in last year for their bad service, but got no reply whatsoever. UA is indeed the worst airline in terms of customer service.

  40. Yes, please let us know what happened. This mama bear would have freaked if they had taken my child’s FAA approved Britax. I agree: Boo UA 🙁

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