Here we go again.
A California man was threatened with handcuffs if he failed to relinquish his first class seat on a United flight from Lihue to Los Angeles. The reason? His seat was needed for a “more important” passenger.
Let’s summarize the details:
- Geoff Fearns, 59 year old president of TriPacific Capital Advisors (manages $500,000,000 in public pension funds)
- Buys a ~$1,000 paid one-way first class ticket to Los Angeles (not an upgrade)
- Last-minute equipment downgrade to an aircraft with few first class seats but no announcement made at gate
- Fearns keeps original seat assignment in first class
- Boarded flight, took his seat in first class, enjoyed a glass of orange juice
- United gate agent enters aircraft, tells him he must get off plane because “flight was overfull”
- Fearns “held his ground” and refused to get up
- United agent stated that first class seat was needed for someone “more important who came at the last minute” and he would be “put in cuffs” if necessary
- Fearns re-accomodated in economy class — in a middle seat between a married couple that was in the midst of a heated fight and argued the entire flight
- Back in California, Fearns wrote United requesting a full refund and a request that United make a $25,000 donation to the charity of his choice
- United refused both requests, offering him a refund in the difference between a business and economy fare and a $500 voucher
- Fearns is now considering a lawsuit
This story comes from David Lazarus, a respected reporter for the Los Angeles Times. I have absolutely no reason to question any part of it.
My Thoughts on “Downgradegate”
In many respects, this is even more egregious than the facts surrounding the other story. I don’t mean to compare a first class downgrade to a bloodied passenger forcibly dragged off a flight. Instead, I mean that United has no excuses for this one. No police officers to blame. No United Express staff to blame. No scapegoats.
Although I am speculating, here’s what I think happened. The equipment downgrade meant four less first class seats. Let’s say that a few were still open so the flight was only overbooked by one in the front cabin. Rather than downgrade anyone, United typically figures on no-shows. Full-fare first class passengers are notorious for cancelling at the last minute.
Hoping for the best, passengers were allowed to board and all looked good until the last passenger showed up at the last minute, likely a Global Services or 1K member. Key unknown fact: did he show up after the check-in cutoff or boarding cut off? Now the first class cabin was overbooked by one and someone had to be downgraded.
You’d figure it would be the guy who showed up later and presumably didn’t have a seat assignment. But that’s not how it usually works. United will typically downgrade passengers based upon elite status in the MileagePlus program. It appears that Fearns had no status. Even though he paid for a first class ticket it is usually passengers like him to get the downgrade.
The Handcuffs Threat
Up until now, I am very sympathetic to Fearns, but roll my eyes at his request that United donate $25K to charity due to a downgrade.
But this was about a lot more than a downgrade.
Fearns was threatened with arrest for failing to give up his seat to a “more important” passenger. Can you imagine being told that? Can you imagine paying $1K for a one-way domestic ticket and then a gate agent threatening to put you in handcuffs for not giving up your seat?
If there is one thing that I hope all this horrible publicity will change, it is the police threats. I am so sick of them. I am so sick of the culture of fear that permeates the USA.
Maybe a lawsuit from the deep pockets of a “privileged” traveler may finally lead to airline policy change.
Fearns does not indicate how much his fare difference refund is, but I suspect it was small. A walk-up first class ticket is often less than a full-fare economy class ticket.
I am surprised United did not send him a bill for the difference in fare…
In correspondence to Fearns, United wrote “Your business is especially important to us and we’ll do our utmost to make your future contacts with United satisfactory in every respect”.
That’s an insult.
United has a huge customer service problem. I agree with Travis and lay the blame on the Smisek era. It is time that United immediately empowers its agents to start thinking with their heads and hearts, not just their computers. The whole overbooking policy needs to be revisited, even if it normally works out quite well.
I’m sure we’ll hear more about this story today.