Forced to “upgrade” on a United Airlines flight – is this deceptive?

Barbara Acosta was duped by United Airlines.

“A colleague and I traveled from Washington to Albuquerque for a conference last week,” she says. “Our tickets were already paid for, but when we went to check in online a few hours before our flight, we were told the economy seats were all taken. We were forced to pay an extra $29 each for Economy Plus seats.”

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She wonders, “Is this legal?”

At this point, my readers are gathering into two camps: The ones who say yes, of course it’s legal — and by the way, United didn’t “force” her to do anything. The second camp disagrees: “She was tricked into paying more for her seats,” they say.

Both sides are kinda right.

I asked Acosta if she’s certain that United told her she had no other choice but to pay $29 to sit in those so-called “premium” seats. I say “so-called” because these seats have roughly the same amount of legroom as the standard economy class seat two decades ago. Not comfortable, but humane.

As I read between the lines in her case, I can guess what went wrong. Acosta wanted to sit next to her colleague. There was probably an equipment change, and the confirmed seat assignments were no longer together. The only two available seats were in the “plus” section, so Acosta was told that if she wanted to sit with her colleague, she had to pay.

I’ve asked for the paper trail between Acosta and United. I’ll update this post when it becomes available.

So the “rules are rules” people are correct; she should have paid attention to all of the fine print. If she had, then she’d know that she could have avoided the $29 upsell. At the same time, United could have been clearer with her that this fee was not mandatory.

The “customer-is-always-right” advocates are also right. United took advantage of Acosta’s desire to sit next to a colleague. While it didn’t intentionally deceive her, it allowed her to think she had no other option but to shell out $29. That’s dishonest. It’s a bait-and-switch and it should be illegal.

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to retrieve Acosta’s $29. But there’s a bigger question here: Should I gather all of my advocates and have them help to put pressure on the government to stop these shenanigans from continuing?

There’s been an ongoing discussion among consumer groups about asking the government to define what’s in a ticket. A confirmed seat reservation seems like something that should be part of that package. (Unless, of course, you’re on Southwest Airlines.)

The alternative is that people like Acosta — and worse, families with young children — will continue to feel forced to pay extra for seats they already have. That’s really problematic, from my perspective, and profitable, from theirs.

The “rules-are-rules” folks are right. Know the system. We preach that on this site every day. But the “customer-is-always-right” travelers are also correct. United is pulling a fast one. This is clearly deceptive, and it must end.

Should we take Barbara Acosta's case?

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41 thoughts on “Forced to “upgrade” on a United Airlines flight – is this deceptive?

  1. Good idea to ask the government to define a ticket. However, consumers may not like the definition the Feds come up with. But then we will know exactly where we stand vis a vis the airline industry, unless the definition will be made vague, subject to further interpretation…

  2. Were these tickets on the same itinerary or booked separately — although with the seat assignments being next to another?

    If they were booked together, then you have a pretty strong case to get the money back. If booked individually, UA would not have known these were travelers flying together and you might have a harder time.

    For the most part, UA has the same seat numbers for most of its mainline flights. A319/A320/737/757. FC is rows 1-6 (even if there are not 6 rows). E+ starts at 7 and goes down to 15 (no 13). The exit rows skip down to 20 and 21. Economy is 22 and beyond. The widebodies and int’l flights (747/767/787) as well as regionals have a different scheme.

    So it is possible for an equipment change to things, but that only impacts a few people and they must have been the unlucky ones.

  3. If United didn’t make it clear that they didn’t have to select a seat, they should have. But while it’s been a while since I’ve done online check-in for United, I’m pretty sure it DOES have a statement where they say something along the lines of: “If you don’t select a seat now, one will be assigned before boarding.”

  4. So why should Southwest be exempt from any particular potential government regulation you want to impose? Southwest has many merits, but the lack of a seat assignment is not one of them to many people.

    I for one would willingly pay the extra $29 to be upgraded for a flight of that length, but in any case the passenger should have been presented with it as an option to take or not. There’s information missing. Was the flight oversold, and the upgrade presented as an option rather than an involuntary denied boarding (which would have been worth compensation)? Was it, as you suggest, a case of equipment change? She doesn’t say anything about it being an issue of sitting with a colleague, and in that case perhaps someone would have been willing to switch with either of them if the seat would be equivalent or better. In any case $29 isn’t really worth a lot of effort. She did get a better seat at a very minimal cost.

    1. Since Southwest doesn’t assign seats, how can you not exempt them from regulations that govern seat assignments.

      The issue here is not whether you would be willing to pay $29 for a better seat, but whether an airline can force a passenger to pay more when no seats are available at the price at which the travel was booked. What if the only seat available was in business class and the agent had demanded an additional $200 to board the flight. Would that be fair?

      Many years ago, American Airlines overbooked the coach section of a flight that I was scheduled to be on. My connecting flight arrived in Chicago about 30 minutes late and the by the time that I got to the gate for the next leg of the trip, the other passengers had their seat assignments and were in the process of boarding. There was not a coach seat available for me and I was assigned a seat in first class. The gate agent did not ask me to pay for the upgrade and I’m sure that the thought never crossed his mind.

      1. But how do you make a regulation that applies to all but one airline? “You have to assign seats at booking unless you’re Southwest”? I don’t think that flies legally.

        1. If the rule is “All seating assignments must follow [x] rules,” it automatically does not apply if there are no seating arrangements. It’s pretty simple. So if the other airlines decide not to do assigned seating, they don’t have to follow it either.

        2. You can do so by having the regulation state: “This regulation applies only to airlines that provide passengers with reserved seats. It does not apply to any airline that does not assign seats to passengers”.

          1. OK, but won’t the possible unintended consequence be that other airlines decide not to assign seats to passengers? That’s not something I’d be excited to see.

          2. Currently, the legacy airlines use reserved seating as a way of differentiating themselves from Southwest. If American, Delta or United drop the ability to get a seat assignment in advance, they lose the war.

          3. Just one aspect of it. There are many other differentiations, some in Southwest’s favor, some in the favor of the legacies. I like it that I can fly on American to Japan, for example. I don’t think we really see here what actually happened in the case of the United situation described in the article; we’ve been guessing about it. Really, for all the complaining, if you’re not willing to pay $29 for a better seat between Washington and Albuquerque, you are one of the supremely price conscious who will be hurt (in terms of that priority) by any regulatory regime along the lines Elliott appears to want.

      1. Yes, in some ways, but the topic here is seating policy and I for one don’t find it advantageous I can’t get an assigned seat. I understand that many people are able to hover by their computer or device at all hours of the day and check in right away at 24 hours before the flight. I have a job where I’m expected to be engaging in my work quite a bit of the time. I tend to end up with bad seats on Southwest. I don’t complain about it and ask the government to assuage my disappointments for me – I fly Southwest when it suits me and don’t when it doesn’t. But I don’t see the airline getting a free pass here when its policies, in this respect at least, cannot be held up as a model that benefits all passengers.

        1. So pay the $12.50 and get Early Bird Check In. Still cheaper than other airlines especially since you get 2 free bags. They’re not getting a pass. They’re better.

          1. True enough but that’s what this website rails about (under different names) with respect to other airlines – that you have to pay more to make sure you get the better seats. I think the existence of this option does make it harder, legally, for a theoretical rule to cover the other guys and not Southwest. I think those who want to prevent Southwest from regulation that would change the way they operate, while imposing regulation on everybody else, are going to be disappointed.

  5. Much as I hate saying this, I think it’s time the government got involved with the airline industry as a whole. So it was $29 this time. What’s to say it’s not $129 next time? When you book and pay for a ticket, that should be the end of it. No “do-overs” on the airline’s side. I would not, however, want anything at “my” airline (Southwest) to change!

  6. Sounds to me like their seats were not selected at purchase. That’s clearly what she is saying…

    In which case, the question is, can the airline give away something which is already paid for? They checked in a couple hours early, so they should be afforded a seat. If the airline can’t provide the seat for which they are ticketed, then they should get the next available class. Without charge.

    1. in which case, it clearly spells out the seats are assigned at the airport. So when she chose to have seats together, only paid seats were left, and if she did not want to wait to get to the airport, then she pays.

  7. Why don’t people just say “NO” to the pressure? You’re not going to be denied boarding if you bought the ticket and have checked in on time. What will happen is that if there are no more economy seats left, YOU WILL default to an economy plus seat – and you don’t pay for it ! Just hold your ground, do not agree to paying for an economy plus seat no matter what the agent says and “magically” you will end up in economy plus – no charge.

    1. This is a calculated risk that many FF’s take. They deliberately book a flight on a busy route and wait until the last minute to check in in the HOPES of getting bumped and then getting coupons/etc. for another flight OR upgraded to a business class seat.

      But then.. there’s the risk of getting stuck in the economy seat by the toilet. Something that nearly happened to me after a bad travel agent (human, not online) put me there and if I hadn’t checked the day before, hell would have been mine for 11 hours from Franfurt to DC. (The poor German guy who wound up in that seat, my heart goes out to him!)

  8. It is always necessary, unfortunately, to pressure the airlines & especially government for consumer rights. In fact, until there is a “Consumer Rights” Law in the USA as there is in Europe, nothing will change & the airlines will continue to “rape” the flying public.

    1. Is it necessary, however, to use that word? It’s more accurate to say that customers are being fleeced anyway and without trivializing something terrible.

  9. I have been involuntarily upgraded on occasion (once to First, in the good old days). In some cases whether it was an “upgrade” was questionable, but I have never been required to pay extra. That’s probably the next change we are going to be forced to get used to.

    1. Funny travel story. An FA asked if I could move so an old lady could sit next to her daughter and I agreed.

      You know the saying? No good deed goes unpunished? It turns out she had a seat in the back far worse than what I had.

      Another FF had a similar request, in business class, from a woman looking to sit next to her boyfriend. He said sure and checked her seat assignment and… she was in the rear economy class. She got all huffy when he changed his mind. Why not let the boyfriend switch seats from business to rear economy if sitting next to her was so important?

  10. Did they have to pay because they wanted to sit TOGETHER or just to get a seat? I feel it is because they wanted to sit together.

    There are many people who end up with economy plus seats on UA flights who did not pay extra for them and were simply assigned those seats because there were no others available in the regular economy section. Kind of frustrating to those who do pay for a spot in the “good” seats.

  11. government to stop these shenanigans from continuing be for families with young children are told you can pay the $29 seat fee or the $150 unaccompanied minor fee

    1. And “young children” will have to be defined. And, why does it have to be only young children? If I want to sit with my teenager then shouldn’t I be able to? What if I prefer to sit next to my husband? i can’t believe I’m going to say this – but I miss the good old days when flying at least had a chance of being an enjoyable experience.

  12. I see where their tickets were paid for, but no indication they already had confirmed seat assignments. Anytime I’ve had a seat assigned at check-in, I’ve not had to pay unless I was offered and accepted an upgrade. If *only* plus seats were available, they’d have gotten them assigned at check-in for free. She only had to pay because she SELECTED one so she could sit by her colleague.

  13. On UA, if there are no seats available in standard Economy, you will get an E+ seat at no charge. But you have to wait for UA to assign it for you. You cannot select that seat when you check in yourself. The gate agent needs to do that. Or possibly someone on the phone (maybe).

    Yes, UA will try to upsell the E+ seats. It may also move those pax with lower status up to E+ and then back fill the rest.

    This all boils down to whether the two had assigned seats when they made the reservation.

  14. If you’re not going to use a travel agent, fine, but talk to SOMEBODY who knows about travel before you buy a ticket. I try not to take travel knowledge and experience for granted, but I wouldn’t make a purchase (several hundred dollars, likely) of something I was ignorant of without doing some basic research. Please, huh?

  15. Did she book through an agency that did not let her select her seats when the flight was booked? Did the airline tell her she did not have an assigned seat due to equipment swap and to see a gate agent for seating. Did she want to MOVE from her assigned seat to seats that were together but the only ones together were in the economy plus section? Did she read any of the directions? And, following up on that, did she follow them? If yes, then indeed advocate for her, if not then this was a good example for others to learn from and avoid similar experiences in the future.

  16. I agree with MF. We should have a clear, legal definition of a ticket:
    1) A voucher for transport from point A to point B;
    2) Delivering the passenger to their destination within 60 minutes of the scheduled flight time (let’s face it, with today’s meteorological tools pilot’s know their take-off, landing and transit weather pretty well before they even get to the airport); so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be similarly apprised so we might make other arrangements;
    3) To include all taxes and fees, permitting one travel bag, and one carry-on bag;

    4) Accountable to the rules of the name airline on the ticket (no more code share hocus pocus);
    5) After purchase, no additional fees for intra-class exchanges (e.g., seat fees, check-in fees, etc);
    6) A standardized, minimal seat width and surrounding space (i.e., reclining into your space) that permits the safe evacuation of an aircraft in an emergency. (I suspect this flying cattle trucks are so unsafe that the fire marshal would shut ’em down if they were on the ground.

    1. And fares go up 30% across the board to cover the costs to the airlines of abiding by all of this. More than that, probably, because some will go out of business and there will be less competition. If somebody isn’t willing to pay $29 to upgrade a seat from Washington to Albuquerque for just a little bit of what you detail, why would they be willing to pay the new going rate for a seat?

      1. I know I sound like a Liberal on this, but I am a Libertarian. Bullets, 1 & 3-6 are appropriate (#6 related to safety). #2 seems reasonable to me, but I am willing to defer on that.

        You misunderstood my comments. I specifically stated no intra-class fees. I would consider “Economy Plus” an inter-class service, like first-class. HOWEVER, what is done now is coach is now rebranded “economy plus”, and other seats are crammed together into a rebranded (and unsafe) economy class.

        I don’t care about the upsell in service. I care that an airline ticket is no longer an airline ticket: Seat assignment fee (see Frontier), check-in fee, hell, even a $40 carry on fee. It’s flat out opaque and deceptive.

  17. I’d like to get more information. There is no way that United ought to be able to “force” someone to pay to upgrade. If that’s really what the agent did, then the fees should be refunded. If they misunderstood what they were told, then the fees shouldn’t be refunded. I think a little more detail on the conversation that took place between passengers and agent is needed before Chris should decide whether or not to take this case.

  18. “Should I gather all of my advocates and have them help to put pressure on the government to stop these shenanigans from continuing?”

    YES! And there are more things to regulate to bring the balance between airlines and the public right to a fair contract. The whole risk of doing business must return fully to the airlines.
    1: ‘”rules are rules” just read a fine print’ is a fallacy. Why? These “rules” are written by one side of the transaction, are not negotiable, are not symmetric and do not meet the smell test for being a legal contract. Air travel is not a privilege in the XXI-st century.
    2: “rules” is a misnomer as it suggest that it is the law. The law is what representative government passes.
    3: The “rules” are given a color of contract because theoretically by having them register with the government agency gives it appearance of a negotiated contract between the private airline and the public. Such may have been partially a case before the deregulation – but now it is a fallacy.
    4: there are more – but for me the above are sufficient.
    5. I am all for law and order but not airlines “rules”.

  19. @BMG4ME,
    I agree, more detail is needed about the conversation between the passenger and the agent. However, realistically, passengers are not going to read the fine print of airlines’ contractual rules that apply once the person has bought the ticket. No one should have to be a Philadelphia lawyer just to buy an airline ticket, sit in a seat and fly from A to B. Many passengers can keep it simple.

    1. Buy the ticket (in advance).

    2. Try to get your seats preassigned in advance online or over the phone (if ticket allows).

    3. If preassigned seat is not available or together, go to the airport early. On time is not early.

    4. If you are told at the ticket counter or kiosk that there are no seats together (companion, family members, etc.), do not agree to paying for a seat “upgrade”. The system will still issue a boarding pass without a seat number and it will get you through security. See an agent if the kiosk doesn’t do this and insist with agent that you will wait to get seats at the gate.

    5. Lastly deal with the seating at the gate. Bug the gate agent that you will not settle for less than sitting next to your three year old. Be nice, be polite but firm. That’s what we get paid for – it’s part of our job – passengers – stop doing all the work – YOU PAID for the service as part of your ticket !!

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