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

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

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?”

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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.


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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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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