I Want “My” Airline To Do Better

Feb 5, 2013

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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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