OK, now airlines have gone too far (or have they?)

Just when you thought you’d seen it all, they’ve done it again.

Here’s the latest outrage, courtesy of Josh Dare. He booked five tickets to Europe on United Airlines (sigh, yes — United Airlines) and then had the audacity to purchase a sixth ticket using points earned through his credit card.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group. Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Well, no one’s perfect.

Anyway, United used that as an excuse to demand more money from him in the form of a seat upgrade, he says. Dare’s experience suggests United is anything but the “friendly skies” when it comes to accommodating its most loyal customers and families. And it makes me wonder — have they finally gone too far?

“When we got our boarding passes, we discovered that the five revenue tickets were seated about 20 rows in front of me,” he says. “Huh? That has never happened before.”

Actually, if the tickets were booked separately, United would have no way of knowing he and his family were together.

“When I asked if I could move my seat to join the rest of my family — there were plenty of seats open near them, as it wasn’t a full flight — the flight attendant said that doing so would require that I pay an upcharge, which her mobile device indicated would be $149,” he recalls. “After spending all that money on the five tickets, I wasn’t inclined to do so.”

He asked the attendant why.

“When I reached out to United, it said that it tries to accommodate seat assignments, but can’t always do so,” he says. “That’s fine. I get that. But when there are seats open, how is that the case? In a subsequent email, it explained its decision was due to potential operational changes. Double huh?”

Dare wants to know if this is a new practice.

It is. Flight attendants were not the seat police back in the day when economy class sections were a single class of service. Now, they roam the aisles with handheld devices, waiting to pick off some ancillary revenue from those of us who can’t handle the squeeze in the back.

But what’s particularly galling about this is that Dare just wanted to sit with his family. He wasn’t doing this for the legroom or the amenities, which were exactly the same. He just wanted to be with his kids. And United knew that and still demanded an extra $149.

Ridiculous.

There are two other problems. Dare’s points purchase appeared to be treated differently than one made with real money, at least for the purposes of this flight. While airlines like United make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the sale of points to credit card companies, they turn around and give those tickets the lowest possible status.

That suggests airlines don’t think their points are worth much, and they don’t think passengers paying with points are worth much either.

Way to reciprocate our loyalty, guys.

The second, and perhaps bigger, problem is that United wouldn’t let him join his own family in the same class of service, even though there were available seats. To me, that suggests all the rhetoric about not wanting to separate families is just that — rhetoric.

The shift goes far beyond airlines like United trying to pull additional revenue out of everyone, including families traveling together. It is the final push to transform flight attendants from highly-trained cabin crew, responsible for the safety and welfare of the passengers, to employees whose ancillary job is to upsell passengers everything from better seats to duty-free products to more mileage-earning credit cards.

And make no mistake, the cabin crew you see are evaluated on how effectively they sell — and upsell — the passenger.

Have airlines gone too far with their cash grab? Perhaps. And they’re still going in the same direction.

Asking $149 to sit in an identical seat next to your family is:

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47 thoughts on “OK, now airlines have gone too far (or have they?)

  1. Perhaps in this case, it might have been useful for the pax to apply the old maxim, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” and just move at a convenient time, assuming United wouldn’t want to split up a family?

  2. he was on the plane and they told him he cannot sit near his family? really? wow. I really cannot believe that. BUT on the other hand, I don’t like your choices so I’m not voting.

  3. I don’t like your choices either, so I didn’t vote.
    We should all be painfully aware about the seats being different prices. You can either work with the system or work against it. Since the total cost of the trip would dwarf the $149, I would have just paid it. If the FA’s aren’t allowed to change it, is it worth getting them into trouble by complaining to them to make an exception? What about all of the other people who paid for their seats? Should they be refunded if the OP got “moved up” there at no charge? It wouldn’t be fair to let him sit up there for no upgrade fee and not others.

    Statements like “I just wanted to sit with my family” are meant to get people fired up. The fact is that when he used points and money to buy a seat, he bought a different type of seat than he got for the rest. If he wanted the same seat, it is $149 more. What percent of the total fare paid for all these tickets was $149?

    Nit picking and obsessing about wanting to change things just contribute to ruining the holiday and the trip. I am willing to accept that the airline applies these rules to their seats and I am not going to be able to change it.

    Once again, I agree with helping people who have been “wronged” but this person just wants them to change the price for his seat, for some reason or another.

    1. I wonder what choices would have induced more commenters to pick one. Something like

      consumer advocacy:

      o THREAT

      or

      o MENACE

    2. In all likelihood the real cost of the trip per every passenger to the airline WAS about $149.
      So all they wanted was to get paid more times: 1 – the price of the tix to get miles; 2 – the miles to get the ticket; 3 – for the seat.
      It looks like the complaint to DOT is warranted – this could be interpreted as a change of ticket price after the sale which is verboten by law.

  4. This sounds like rest of the family was in Economy Comfort and him not. Maybe he had status when he paid for the 5 and that gave him automatic access to economy comfort and the points ticket was bought for someone without status and thus not the same benefit. All said, the key is really whether the seat was identical or whether in fact, it was in a different class of economy. Other airlines have been doing this for longer than delta/united–ie, air france with their voyageur class, klm with economy comfort, etc. Chris will be happy to know that for Delta FF, the automatic access to economy comfort at booking is going away–it will now be an upgrade.

    1. The article clearly states:

      He wasn’t doing this for the legroom or the amenities, which were exactly the same.

      1. I read that, but as someone who spends a fair bit of time on United–i don’t know what seats they charge 149 for other than the ones that are in fact not exactly the same. I also cant find this on their site…

  5. I also did not like the poll question, so I did not answer it.

    Airlines have always treated revenue tickets differently from award tickets. From placement on standby lists (if possible), upgrade lists, rebooking priority, and so on. That should not be a shocker to anyone. And that would apply to Economy Plus seating on United.

    But if seating together was that important and there were plenty of open seats available, then the solution would have been to have the five people move back and switch with people around the one. Yes, it seems counterintuitive and easier to move one than five.

    Under Chris’s logic, if I am in first class and my wife is in economy, if there is an open seat in first class (it sometimes happens), should she get to sit with me? Because keeping the family together is important. Would the FAs be out of line to send her back or ask for more money to sit in front? No. So how is that different from this case? Like first class, economy plus is a different class of seating on the plane. It may visually look similar — as it is very hard to see a whole three extra inches of legroom — but it is different.

    The only question I have is how the five seats were aquired in the first place. Were they purchased to begin with? Or on this flight, there were not enough people willing to pay for it and United “upgraded” the five to Economy Plus to make room in the back.

    1. Using that logic, people can game UA’s Economy Plus. For example, I’ll upgrade my wife only. Then upon boarding I and my kids will throw a hissy fit because the airline separated me and the kids from my wife. We should all move up for free. Truly bizarre, but that is exactly what can happen.

      1. Since airlines monetize their tendency to provide really uncomfortable seating by offering Economy Plus, I guess your scenario is not worrying to me.

  6. He should submit a bad review of his flight attendant then bc she sounds awful. I didn’t realize flight attendants were privy to how people paid for their tickets. I assumed they may know who is a loyalty member though so would think he would receive better treatment and be allowed to move.

    1. its not the FA’s fault. She was doing her job. Sounds like he was gifted better seats due to status, and the one on miles didnt have status and wasnt granted that benefit. He could have checked ahead of time and asked UA to change it. If I paid for the seat, I’d be pissed if I knew UA just gave them out for free….

      1. If he had a better seat than I’m sure someone would have switched with him. If there was no one in the seat near his family to switch with and it was the same, I see no reason not to let the guy sit there. I find it absurd actually.

    2. Odds are that his seat was actually one of the five up front and he chose to sit in back so the rest of the family could sit together.

      When my family of three travels together, I often book the window seat and my son in the middle, but usually end up switching so he could look out the window. We have three seats, doesn’t really matter who takes which seat.

      They had six seats, didn’t matter who sat where. (Execpt one was not with the others.)

    3. The flight attendant didn’t dream up this policy on their own so why blame them? They’re just doing what they’re told. And they’ve always been aware of what class of tickets people were in as they know the differences between first, economy, etc. That seems the most likely thing to have happened here: It wasn’t really an identical seat but was likely in Economy Plus.

        1. They are not the same — 20 rows of difference is a non-trivial amount of time difference disembarking, particularly when one considers delays at various immigration checkpoints. Yeah, I’d like to get a head start on 200 people, too….

          1. Well the article said they were the same. Also, wasn’t he the one in the front seat with them beyond. Maybe I didn’t pay attention.

          2. “Leg room and amenities were the same.” If that is all, and position doesn’t matter, then ye, they were the same. But I think most of us dread the middle seat, and being farther back in an aircraft does result in longer times to depart.

            And he was 20 rows behind the revenue seats.

          3. Big deal the guy sat a few rows behind. I literally don’t care about this. I don’t even remember what this was about

      1. 20 rows away will most likely be between Econ Plus and the rear of the airplane on any UA 767 or 777. For $149 I hope they are not “identical” or people are just wasting money.

  7. I wondered the same thing, too. Why didn’t get seat assignments online before the flight?
    Maybe that was their strategy? Wait and try your luck at the airport. Maybe they will assign you Economy Plus seats for free without paying $149? Sounds like he gambled and lost.

    1. Based on United’s response, quoted in the article, he DID have seat assignments and for some reason at least one of the seat assignments — presumably the reward-seat-assignment — was dropped for some reason.

      “When I reached out to United, it said that it tries to accommodate seat assignments, but can’t always do so,” […] In a subsequent email, it explained its decision was due to potential operational changes.

      The article makes it clear that this had nothing to do with Economy vs. Economy Plus seats:

      “He wasn’t doing this for the legroom or the amenities, which were exactly the same”

    2. That was my thought. Perhaps the award ticket was a regular seat, not economy plus? That means he actually probably paid $149 extra per seat for the other 5 without realizing it.

  8. This happened to me on United Airlines. The flight was like half full and I was stuck in the middle, so I asked if I could move, she said yes, but not to an economy plus row because those seats are more expensive. What the hell would they care if they’re empty anyway?

    1. My guess is they don’t care. But someone, somewhere, is watching and they get in trouble. I don’t really think the FAs are trying to be difficult, they’re enforcing the rules their employer created and probably are somehow penalized if they don’t.

    2. They don’t care (the flight attendants that is). Except that if you move there and don’t pay the upgrade charge then everyone will want to move there for free too. And then those who did pay for the special seats will quit paying for them.

      It’s all about the profits.

  9. Well, why didn’t he pick seats together at check in then? If you all want to sit together and have separately booked tickets, you can’t expect the airline to know that and automatically assign seats. Or was there a cost at checkin too and he just didn’t want to pay it?

    Rules are rules. No matter how silly they might seem, you have to follow them. If you don’t like them, then find another airline that has rules more to your liking.

  10. I wonder if he would be happier if the FA moved the rest of his party (5 pax) to the rear of the airplane so they could all be beside or near him?

  11. If the seats near his family were vacant, it’s ridiculous to not let him sit there for free. This is just a money grab. Airlines need to go back to the days when the only seat choices were first class and other. The only reason to choose first class in those days was free booze and maybe better food. There should be no charge for checking or carrying on bags.

  12. Recently, I flew United to California and once the flight was loaded asked the FA if I could move to an empty seat across the aisle and a couple rows ahead of me, so the guy next to me could have more room. The seat was the row behind FC and it looked like a FC seat–big, cushy and roomy, and it and the one next to it were empty. She said “Hmm others have asked and I said no, but since you’re in a seat with a paid upgrade anyway.. yeah go ahead,” even though THAT seat was MUCH nicer than mine. Either the OP paid for upgrades for the tickets he purchased or the seat “near them” wasn’t “identical” in terms of designation. It was just closer, would be my guess, especially if it was 20 rows ahead. I do NOT get the hullabaloo over sitting with family unless they’re kids under 8 or so.

  13. If you noticed when printing your boarding pass that your seats weren’t together, why did you wait until you were on board to change your seat?

  14. There must be something else going on here. I’m guessing somehow the purchased tickets were in economy plus (which has a few extra inches of legroom and no extra amenities), and for which the airline charges a premium to non-elite frequent flyers. The freebie ticket wasn’t in E+ for some reason. The OP could have checked the seating assignments on line and moved his seat to be near the rest of the family right after booking if he wished, although the same problem may have come about–the website would try to charge for E+ seating. Also, when using credit card points (I suspect this was not a UA branded card which does give you certain perks)–the CC company actually acts as travel agent for you and purchases the ticket. There is no way UA would know this should be linked to the other 5 tickets.

    And Chris–don’t be too hard on the FAs who go around with their handheld credit card devices. They are employees of UA, and have to follow UA’s rules or run the risk of reprimand. Not saying this is right, just don’t blame them.

  15. Location, location, location. Where a seat is located is a factor in determining the desirability (and thus cost) of that seat. Identical means same amenities AND location. To claim otherwise is bogus. Also, amassing and using award points from use of a credit card does not make one a “frequent flyer”, especially one that would be fully aware of the policies.

  16. It’s more United characteristic of Award Tickets or Customer Service Agent Attitude. By experiences, Air Canada and DL/NW treat their award tickets as full-fare economy. American Airlines too treat my Award Tickets quite correct too.

  17. To me all those seat upgrade fees smell like the forbidden change of ticket price after the sale.
    I think the complaint to the DOT on this point alone is warranted.
    Another complaint should go to about deceptive trade practices – I have not seen any writing suggesting that if one buys a ticket paying with miles must run behind the airplane all the way to the destination – or it did not come to that yet?

  18. ONCE AGAIN, need the whole story. Why didn’t he assign his seat online ahead of time? Were his relatives in paid seats? If so, how did his relatives get free upgrades?

  19. I won’t take the bait and vote, and can be as critical as anyone about UA and other airlines that have turned us into cattle, but Chris, I must comment on this statement, which I believe (based on much experience) to be severely inaccurate – “…they turn around and give those tickets the lowest possible status”. First of all, if the ticket was truly purchased with CC points, then it looks to United like a revenue ticket; otherwise, it’s an award ticket purchased from UA using mileage and a non-revenue fare class. In the former case, it’s like any other travel agency-purchased ticket, and in the latter case, I have recent experience which I’d assert proves that mileage tickets are treated no differently. Without supporting FACTS such as fares, flight routing, equipment, what were the original seat assignments (if any), where were the tickets purchased, etc., there are assertions in this article which are dubious at best..

  20. This story is a little strange. Picking a seat in economy is usually trouble-free. But if it’s true, it’s a great example of why empowering your employees is a good business strategy. United could keep a loyal flyer happy by giving him a seat with the family. By forcing the FA to operate solely by the rules, UA made a fool of itself and annoyed a loyal traveller. Everyone knows that you can “status match” with another airline, so treating your passengers well is kinda important these days. Personally, I’m looking at Delta, since UA doesn’t seem interested in my continued loyalty.

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