“The worst travel experience I’ve ever had”

Wendy Watkins thought she was boarding a flight from Oakland to Long Beach last Saturday. She thought wrong.

Instead of getting on a JetBlue to Southern California, which boarded from gate 9, she accidentally got on the flight from Oakland to New York, which left from gate 9a. The airline returned her to Long Beach a day later, but it won’t offer her any additional compensation, according to Watkins.

She thinks JetBlue can do better, calling her ordeal “the worst travel experience I’ve ever had.”

I know what you’re thinking. How could anyone board the wrong flight?

Here’s what happened, in her own words:

I went to what I thought was my gate, and waited for them to call my boarding class. When the line died down I walked up to the ticketing area, gave them my ticket, they ‘scanned’ it, and gave me back my half.

I then got on the plane and off we went. About a half hour into the flight I looked down at the landscape and thought it looked a little odd. I took my ticket out and the lady next to me looked at it and said, “That’s not good, this flight is going to New York.”

I couldn’t believe it! How was I able to get on this flight? They took my ticket and supposedly scanned it but still let me on the flight.

I guess where I got confused was the fact that there was a gate 9 and 9a and they were both leaving at 1 p.m. I didn’t even think twice about it. Also, the ladies next to me said that it was weird how they never mentioned that we were taking off to New York, like they usually do. It was a string of unfortunate events.

No kidding. The gate agents on JetBlue flight 96 apparently failed to review Watkins’ boarding pass and they didn’t make a post-boarding announcement that the plane was going to New York. Here’s what happened next.

I finally got to New York that at 10 p.m., but there were no returning flights to the West Coast so I had to stay the night and catch a flight the next morning.

I was so sad. I had taken the weekend off of work to make this trip happen, missed seeing my godson, missed my best friend’s surprise engagement party and had to pay for a $200 dollar taxi ride from Long Beach to Malibu because I no longer had a ride.

When I called Jet Blue to see if they could do something to make me feel a little better about the experience they said they had already done everything they would and that it was human error and they were no longer responsible. The supervisor I spoke with was very condescending and rude.

I just don’t understand how I was able to get on a flight I didn’t belong on. With all the extra security travelers go through these days, how was it that I was able to get a flight I didn’t have a ticket to?

That’s a good question, and one I put to JetBlue yesterday. The airline has not responded, but I will update this blog if it does.

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In the meantime, here are a few people who would be interested in Watkins’ story:

• My friends at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Consumerist.

• The Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

• The Transportation Security Administration. You can call them at (866) 289-9673 or email the TSA-Contact Center.

• Oakland International Airport. Here’s how to contact them.

Update: JetBlue responded to my question on July 3, a day after this posted. Here’s what it had to say:

Thanks for the note. We certainly regret that Ms Watkins boarded the wrong plane in Oakland. We agree that confusion that may arise when two flights leave at the same time from adjacent gates, which is why our crewmembers are required to make announcements both at the gate and on the aircraft.

Although this is the first incident we’ve heard of where two sets of crews — both on the ground and on the plane — are alleged to have never announced the plane’s destination, we will go ahead and remind all our crews of this important step.

Just as importantly, our general manager in Oakland has spoken with her local crew to underscore the need to verify destination when pulling boarding passes. This is a good reminder for all.

Despite the recollection, Ms Watkins boarding pass was actually not scanned. Scanners are not used in Oakland, due to the airport’s technology limitations, so boarding is a manual process there. Crewmembers enter each customer’s seat number into the system as they board; because Ms Watkins’ seat number was not taken on the JFK flight there was no red flag of a seat duplication and possible misboard.

With respect to your security concerns, all customers in the gate area of U.S. airports have been screened by the TSA. Due to the sensitive nature of information regarding aircraft and airport security, to the extent you have additional questions in this regard, we recommend contacting the TSA directly.

JetBlue was happy to provide Ms Watkins with a hotel in New York City as well as a free flight on the next departure to get her to Long Beach. We respectfully deny her claim for further compensation.

Thanks very much for the opportunity to comment.


Jenny Dervin
Director – Corporate Communications

Here’s what an airline insider had to say this morning:

This was a simple mistake, but if Wendy had her boarding pass scanned and it did not match the passenger manifest, then the gate agent would have had to override an error response. Then there is the flight attendant head count which would have been off by one passenger, that is usually the failsafe to indicate that the flight is not reconciled.

I have handled two memorable cases where passengers boarded the wrong aircraft, one was an international flight, a major security breach. In that case, not only was there compensation, but the agent who ignored the error response from the gate scanner had disciplinary action taken against them.

The real story is how often this does happen and the lack of security protocol it reveals.

I can certainly see both sides of this.

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What do you think? Was JetBlue right, or should it have done more?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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