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United Downgrades Flyer to Accommodate a "More Important" Passenger

May 12, 2017
5 min read
United Downgrades Flyer to Accommodate a "More Important" Passenger
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It’s such an incredible feeling to know your upgrade has cleared, especially on a long flight — it's quite another to have it taken away as you approach your seat and to be denied outright by the airline that gave it to you. TPG reached out to me yesterday after reading about the incident on my blog and asked me to share my experience with you.

United Giveth and United Taketh Away

Yesterday morning, I was flying from Newark (EWR) to San Francisco (SFO) on United. Since the EWR to SFO route is a premium-service route, there are no complimentary premier upgrades given to elites, so I had a friend attach one of his Regional Premier Upgrade certificates to my reservation. I was over the moon once I boarded and found out that my upgrade had cleared, putting me into a new Polaris flat-bed seat for the roughly 6.5-hour ride.

I quickly headed over to my new seat, 2A, but before I even had a chance to sit down, the gate agent said that 2A wasn’t in fact my seat and that I was never upgraded. I was rudely informed that I needed to go back to economy immediately so that they could complete the boarding process and close the door. Confused, I showed her a screenshot of my mobile boarding pass, which clearly stated my name and my business-class seat assignment in seat 2A. I was then told that "a more important" paid business-class passenger needed that seat because the one he was sitting in had a broken light (Note: Although the gate agent said the man was a "paid flyer," I later found out through the app that he'd just been upgraded like I was.). So I offered to sit in that seat with the broken light, but was told it wasn’t an option. I even offered to take a later flight within five hours.

Business class one second, back to economy the next. Image by the author.
Business class one second, back to economy the next. Image by the author.

The real issue was that I was now an involuntarily downgraded passenger and United had banked on me being too naive to understand the nature of the situation (one gate agent even tried to explain “upgrades 101” to me at a kindergarten level ). Instead of delivering a proper customer service experience and taking accountability for its mistake, the carrier resorted to lying, belittling and acting disrespectfully.

I remained calm and polite the whole time and ultimately ended up complying with the request to return to my original seat, knowing that I could deal with the situation on the ground at SFO. Last month, a similar story surfaced involving a United passenger who was threatened with removal from a flight in handcuffs if he didn't give up his paid first-class seat to "a more important passenger." While I didn't feel like my situation was going in that direction, you just never know when a normal interaction can take a sour turn.

The funny thing is, many airlines don’t really include downgrades in the contract of carriage, but there usually is a standard procedure in place involving compensation, a refund in the difference in fare or miles and the right of passengers to be re-accommodated on a later flight if space is available in the ticketed cabin. While it’s also standard that "lowest priority" customers get booted before everyone else, don’t be under the assumption that award ticket holders have fewer rights than other paying customers.

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United's Response

I was pleasantly surprised by my interaction at United's customer service center at SFO, where an amazing rep, Kate Bartnett, handled my situation in such a heartwarming way. After I wrote a follow-up post on my blog, I received a 10-minute personal phone call from the United Executive offices and did receive an apology, which I thought was sincere.

At the end of the day, flying is not about upgrades and compensation. What really matters is acknowledging that passengers are human beings and more importantly, that everyone in every class is treated with respect. In the end, I received a $500 travel certificate — the standard compensation for a downgrade — which I plan to pay forward and use to book a flight for someone in need. Hopefully, we can start seeing some "friendly skies" again soon.

Angelina Aucello covers family travel for TPG and writes the popular blog, Angelina Travels. Follow along with all her travel adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

Featured image by Getty Images