The Airline Gave Our Seats Away — Reader Mistake Story

Feb 2, 2018

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Today, I want to share a story from reader Tuan, who wasn’t allowed to board despite arriving at his gate in time for departure. Here’s what he had to say:

Last year, my family of three booked a morning flight with American Airlines from Miami to San Francisco. We only booked two seats since my daughter was under two years old. Since I have the Platinum Card from American Express, we arrived at the airport early to use the Centurion Lounge, which was about 10-15 minutes from our gate on foot.

We made it to our gate 20 minutes before departure, but to my surprise our seats had already been given away. The door was still open, but the gate agent would not allow us to board the plane, since our seats were no longer available. We weren’t the only ones in that situation, as another passenger who showed up before us also had his seat given away. No announcement was made in the airport in either case.

The gate agent was able to book us on a later flight with a two-hour layover in Dallas. Unfortunately our connection was delayed, and then had a last minute gate change to another concourse, so we had to run for it. Again, no announcement was made (even for the gate change), and we would have missed a flight for the second time that day if I had not been constantly checking my phone for updates.

In the end, our six-hour trip home turned into a twelve-hour trip, which taught me a few lessons. First, show up at at your gate at the boarding time. You never know if the airline will finish boarding early or give away your seat. Second, take initiative to confirm your gate, especially when your flight is delayed. Don’t depend on the airline to announce gate changes or to call your name during boarding!

Tuan may have made a mistake here, but it’s not the one he thinks he made. American Airlines’ conditions of carriage specify that passengers must be at their gates and ready to board 15 minutes before a scheduled departure from the US (30 minutes for flights originating outside the US, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands). Since Tuan and his family arrived in time, their tickets should have been honored. Assuming they complied with other ticketing rules and weren’t turned away for safety reasons, American violated its own policies (and federal regulations) by giving their seats away without offering involuntary denied boarding compensation.

I don’t think it’s essential to be at your gate precisely at the scheduled boarding time, though it doesn’t hurt. If your flight appears to be full or overbooked, then arriving on time may help you avoid getting bumped. Otherwise, just abide by the rules set out by your carrier. Like American, Delta and United ask passengers to arrive at the gate no less than 15 minutes before domestic departures, while Alaska specifies a more stringent 30-minute window. If you show up to find your seat has been given away improperly, be sure to document the time along with any other relevant information, including the name of any agent who assists you. A clear record of what transpired will support your case for compensation later on.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Tuan for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured photo by AlxeyPnferov/Getty Images

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