United Airlines: Stop Bouncing People Out of Reserved Seats

Dear United:

Just when I thought you couldn’t get worse, you have managed to again perform well below expectations.  How?

I now believe that you have a deliberate policy to bounce low-tier flyers from reserved Economy Plus seats.  How do I know this?

  • I am a relatively high-tier United flyer, happily achieved not through flying you much anymore, but through legacy status as multi-million mile flyer.  With that status, you treat me just barely well enough for me to think about flying on your airline on competitive domestic routes.  (Though I avoid your international business like the plague.)  You may have noticed I dropped from flying about 100-150K miles/year to maybe 30K/year as a result of changing to alternatives like Virgin America.
  • My wife, however, is a low-tier United flyer.   The way you treat her is simply appalling and quite possibly illegal.  One purpose of this blog is to highlight the myopia of your CRM program where, among other weaknesses, you have literally for decades missed the basic possibility that high-tier flyers are married-to and/or parents-of low-tier flyers.  When you hose the low-tier flyer, you hose the high-tier flyer partnered with them.  But the real point is you shouldn’t treat anyone the way you routinely treat my wife.
  • For about the fourth time you have bounced her out of a pre-reserved Economy Plus seat — thus it is clear to me that this cannot be a series of accidents but a deliberate policy.
  • Today you bounced her (and my son) from 11EF  to 32AB on a 737-900 (literally the worst seats on the plane) even when we were traveling together.  I was never notified.  No email was sent.  I learned this at check-in time.  #nice
  • However, this is topped by my “favorite” story where my wife had paid $90 extra for Economy Plus.  Minutes before departure, she was called up at the gate and handed a new boarding pass for a non-economy plus middle seat.  No explanation was offered.  No refund was given.  Yes, you paid $90 extra for Economy Plus but someone more important came along, so we’re moving you back to 37E because we can.  She was so stunned she said nothing at the time.  If you this transactionally, you got away with it.  #congrats.  If you view this from a relationship perspective, you burned her forever.  Any time I want to fly United (and that’s less and less) she reminds me of the story and says we can’t be certain we’ll get our assigned seats.  Today again you proved her right.

So it’s clear what you’re doing.  You’re making two promises that you seem to have no intent on delivering upon:

  • A low-status flyer can buy-up to Economy Plus and have a guaranteed seat.  This promise is clearly now false.  They can have the seat only if it is convenient for you at departure time.
  • A high-status flyer can bring 1-2 low-status flyers with whom they’re traveling up to Economy Plus.  Today you proved this promise false as well.

Given the frequency with which this occurs it is clear that this is not bad luck or coincidence.  This seems to be policy.  And I think it’s probably illegal.  You’re probably CYAed by some regulation never intended for this purpose.  But what you’re doing is nevertheless wrong.

From a customer experience (CX) perspective, let me make clear what you’re doing.

  • With your normal, crappy, bad flight attendants, no video screens, worst-boarding-process-of-any-airline, service I’d guess you are driving survey responses on a net promoter score (NPS) survey from maybe passives of 7-8 down to detractors of 4-5.   Lucky for you, people don’t expect much from airlines so you can get away with this.
  • However, with the failure to honor pre-reserved seats you are actively creating detractors — and not just 2-3 out of 10 detractors, but 0 out of 10 detractors.  Like “I never want to fly United again” detractors.  Like “I’ll fly one-stop to Denver because I can’t stand United” detractors.  Like “even if it’s business/first, I don’t want to fly United” detractors.  In fact, I have trouble of thinking of a better way to make people hate you more than repeatedly making the promise of reserved seat — and in cases collecting a supplement for it — only to fail to honor that promise.

It’s not an accident.  It must be policy.

This year I’ll probably fly 30K miles on United out of a total of 200K.  Next year my goal is zero.

17 responses to “United Airlines: Stop Bouncing People Out of Reserved Seats

  1. “You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that is really the most important part of the reservation, the holding.”

  2. Dave: it sounds illegal to me. I’m not an attorney, but I am a 2 million mile flyer on United. I totally empathize–although my most recent pathetic experience was with American.

    • Me, too. That’s why I posted it. While I’m not a lawyer, my gut is there is some law/rule/regulation that says seats aren’t guaranteed (because they can’t be — aircraft changes, maintenance issues, and such … but that rule is being abused to enable them to sell E+ and deliver at their convenience. #amazing.

  3. The same thing happend to my son last summer on a United flight. I paid for an economy plus seat and he was bumped from his reserved seat. I sent an angry email to customer service complaining about the change and letting them know that we felt duped. I explained that we were owed both an apology and a $90 refund. Of course, I never heard from them.

  4. If you’re really a MM, why haven’t you given your wife your status? It’s one of the biggest benefits of the United program.

  5. Exact same thing happened to me on the way to and from PHL last week.

    Bought aisle seats in economy plus. When I checked in they had eassigned me to the aft end. Only middle seats were available in economy plus by that time so had to purchase them at a higher cost.

    I stopped flying UA a while back because of these issues so my status has changed and they forget customers really fast.

    After all this the plane was delayed leaving because they can’t seem to provision their equipment from one coast to the next. How many years have they been doing this? They still haven’t got it right? Didn’t get to PHL until midnight.

  6. I ditched United three years ago because these types of actions proved they simply didn’t care about me or my business one tiny bit. I will never fly them again. If forced to by my company (which now seems unlikely :-) I would pay for a ticket on another airline out of my own pocket rather than fly them. I moved to Delta. Their planes and routes may not be the best, it often means I have to do connections to get where I want to go, but they have never broken a promise related to my status, they have looked after me when things have gone wrong, even when it’s my own fault, and nine members of staff out of ten make me feel like a valued customer when I fly them. That’s what gets my loyalty.

  7. Exact same thing need to me. Paid for E+, bumped at gate! never refunded. Let’s get the word out on United. Incredibly poor customer service!

  8. “happened” to me (Siri moment…!)

  9. David,

    I’ve forwarded your blog to United Airlines. We manage customer experience listening programs for them with our Clarabridge CX enterprise platform. Let me know if you get a call back from anyone in the CX team up to or including David Leasure.



    Sid Banerjee CEO Clarabridge O +1 571.299.1810 M +1 703.981.8655 Sent from my iPhone

  10. Reblogged this on Debster822's Blog and commented:
    I’ve had bad experiences with United but nothing this bad, or consistent.

  11. Thanks for the warning Dave. I will choose another airline for my travel.

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