$18,000 Ticket to Nowhere: United Airlines Pilot Grounds 1K Passenger for Foul Language

A United Airlines pilot who flies Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft kicked a top MileagePlus elite passenger off of a cross country flight from Newark to San Francisco and shared the story to social media.

The captain had gone up to the gate for paperwork and overheard this ‘1K’ customer cursing at the gate agent prior to boarding at Newark airport.

Standing there, literally throwing every combination of the “F” word at the gate agent was a 1K member (or so he claimed) angry about something. I stood there for a second, looked at him, and asked if he was flying to SFO.

He confirmed he was. I then turned to the [gate agent] and told her to re-accommodate him on another flight, because he WAS not flying with me that day. I honestly thought he was going to punch one of us at that point but to his credit, he simply threw a few F-bombs at us and walked away.

United Airlines at Newark

1K status requires spending at least $18,000 per year with United. It does not, however, require class. The pilot didn’t have context for why the customer was swearing. It’s Newark, so reasonable to assume they were receiving poor service. But the customer’s reaction crossed a line.

I say good for the pilot! But does a pilot have the right to kick a passenger off for their choice of language? Sort of.

49 USC § 44902 provides broad latitude, within certain bounds laid out by the FAA, for the captain of an aircraft to refuse transportation to a passenger if they feel that passenger might be “inimical to safety.”

A pilot’s decision cannot be arbitrary or capricious – but that’s not the same as saying it has to be reasonable. It’s generally presumed that the actions of the pilot are reasonable, and judged based on facts the pilot was aware of at the time and the time constraints they’re under.

  • If they hear only one side of the story, and it’s incomplete
  • And they make a decision based on that information
  • And they’re in a rush to get the plane out
  • That’s probably going to be fine under the law

United Airlines Boeing 757 in San Francisco

If the captain felt that a passenger could be a safety risk solely because they heard the passenger’s foul language, they’re probably within their rights to refuse that passenger transportation. They cannot kick you off for using bad words. But they can kick you off if they feel your bad words make you a safety risk. And as long as that judgment isn’t arbitrary or capricious it won’t be reviewed.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Taking it upon himself to share the event to social media could be more costly to the UA pilot than it was for the passenger.

  2. Customer was probably cursing about new United boarding policy that boards group 1 economy first, creating huge line in group 1 boarding line and hanging out in jet bridge for first class pax. How you get group 1 economy unclear but good news is all groups arrive same time. So he should chill.

  3. The captain did the right thing. The captain does have the right to deny boarding. In most cases, the company would be consulted but rarely would the company disagree. If the passenger is treating the already overworked gate agent in the manner reported, there’s a good possibility that the same will occur airborne. That would be a miserable flight for all concerned. That captain stood up for the entire crew, which includes the ground crew. Maybe a little “humble pie” will calm the clown passenger down.

  4. Absolutely agree with the Captain’s decision. That Customer could benefit from an anger management session. It is never appropriate to confront a gate agent in that manner, or anyone else for that matter. The Customer was demonstrating strong signals of instability and it is high time we begin to recognize the signs prior to disaster. Better head him off in Newark than have to land in Chicago to take him off because he snaps again while inflight. Good job, Captain.

  5. Without context on the situation the pilot abused his position of power to boot someone off. He already assumed cause of the foul language the customer was in the wrong. He does not know what occurred prior to foul language that could have provoked the situation.

    Maybe he should of stepped in and spoke to the customer himself and see what the issue was and solve it and if unsolvable then place the customer n another flight.

  6. Yawn. I may have no college degree. I may even only have a thousand hours of training. I like to call myself a professional but have neither a professional degree, nor any job the department of education or census bureau would consider professional. I also wear a fake costume to fake an appearance of importance. Because of all of the above I lack the intellect to think it’s appropriate to post to social media. Look at me I’m an important professional.
    Sincerely hope this is a fake post.

  7. Overflation on the title much, Gary? The passenger spent at least $18K last year, but definitely not on one ticket.

    @Mark Group 1 is not economy. It’s a combination of first class, Premier Gold and above (who may be sitting in Economy), and Star Alliance Gold.

  8. @Mike… Maybe he did all those things. As you said, without context, there is no way to know what actually went down.

  9. There is no worry to this pilot at all and it doesn’t matter that he posted it. In fact, it good to show “elites” that their status won’t save them from bad behavior. It’s not just the pilots that have that power. If a flight attendant is have issues with a passenger, all they have to say is “I don’t not feel comfortable with them flying” and they are off. And finally while the gate agents have very thick skin because they see and hear a LOT, they can take you off before you ever even see a pilot or flight attendant.
    And you really better think twice about assaulting any of them. It’s a felony and the punishment for assaulting such workers is a fine of up to $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison.

  10. @ptahcha, it is now. That’s my point. FYI I’m 1mm with UA not that it matters anymore , obviously.

  11. No Gary, It is not reasonable to assumme poor service because it happened at Newark. I have flown out of Newark several times a year for the last 12 years and have never, yes that’s never, received poor service. Your comment is uncalled for and an insult to all the hard working United employees at Newark Liberty Airport.

  12. It’s time people are held accountable
    I’ve had it with people like the customer who escalates situations to swearing and cruelty

    Mike said “He already assumed cause of the foul language the customer was in the wrong. He does not know what occurred prior to foul language that could have provoked the situation.”

    The customer was wrong. Period.
    The gate agent might have *also* been wrong.
    But there is no circumstance that makes the customer right when they swear like this

    I have to constantly train my team to deescalate horrible people like this. When they can’t, I have to deal with the customers

    I’ve had it with these sorts of people and wish I could do what s/he did.

    “The customer is always right” mentality coupled with our new political atmosphere which makes being ignorant and loud a virtue must stop

    People who swear like this are security risks. Period.

  13. Probably the correct decision to deny boarding. I agree with Tim Dunn that posting this was a mistake. Almost certainly violates UA employee guidelines.

  14. The fact that the pilot took time to (apparently gleefully) post that he’d summarily booted a pax before said pax even stepped on the aircraft, based upon the use of foul language with a gate agent tells me that this pilot is drunk on authority and was completely uninterested in figuring out who was in the right or wrong. Swearing is low class and indicative of an inability or disinclination to better express oneself orally, but it isn’t a crime or necessarily an indicator of trouble. If the pilot didn’t care to possibly correct a service error on the GA’s part or explain to the pax how the GA was in the right, the least he could have done would have been to have warned the pax that he has one chance to quiet down and get on the plane before he gets the boot. Pilot didn’t even do that.

    Let’s not forget that this was in Newark. People there will drop F bombs in the course of attempting to render a friendly greeting.

  15. Here’s hoping the customer sues UA and the pilot, and wins. We do not know if he was reaccommadated on another flight.
    We also don’t know if one of the many EWR UA sc*mbag gate agents started cursing at the passenger first.
    What we do know is EWR is a cesspool, the TSA agents there are criminals, and the UA gate agents there are as*sholes.

  16. The f-word in New Jersey is simply a standard greeting. Captain is way out of line without context. What’s next, kicking Southerners out for their offensive accent?

  17. “We do not know if he was reaccommadated on another flight.”

    We can infer that he was:
    Per the pilot “I then turned to the [gate agent] and told her to re-accommodate him on another flight”

    “Scumbag agents”
    “TSA criminals”
    “UA @holes”

    So you excuse a person who is swearing up a storm
    And then label an entire airport thusly

  18. Passenger was given the equivalent of a time out. Good. No matter the cause, you need to control yourself.

  19. The “F” word is commonly heard in music these days. It is actually common place. Angry is more the problem. Maybe everyone should be screened for being angry and those who are arbitrarily kicked off the aircraft. Like in the Soviet Union, be very careful what you say.

  20. The ability to kick out a pax is within the captain’s right.

    Walking by, hearing curse words thrown by a pax with no knowledge of context, and making a unilateral decision without understanding the context, seems to be an overreach of that ability.

    Without knowing the context, the pilot impacted a pax day/life. This seems a bit cavalier. The cursing may have been.a direct result of something United or that agent did. While the language is not necessary, it doesn’t mean the agent was automatically guilt free. It’s within the realm of possibility the agent instigated something, the pilot would never have known, because he never asked what’s happening.

  21. Unacceptable behavior at the gate, does not get better onboard the plane. Therefore the pilot absolutely did the right thing by denying the passenger from boarding. People need to think about the risk to the other passengers onboard a plane at 30,000 ft.
    As far a 1 K status- Status does not entitle people to be disrepectful or abusive. Think about the impact the abusive passenger had on the gate agent and other passengers. Making that passenger take the next flight allows them to cool down. We have all seen videos of fist fights and abusive passengers onboard airplanes. Stopping them at the gate, is just smart.

  22. I have witnesses several altercations between airline crew and passengers, and many times the crew member instigated the incident. I know this was a gate agent but the same thing could have happened here. I don’t condone swearing and lashing out at an employee, but sometimes their threats and behavior kind of ask for it.

  23. I wonder what a breathalyzer test of the passenger would have revealed. I believe if alcohol were banned at airports and on planes, passenger disruptions would disappear as if by magic. Of course, that will NEVER happen or even be considered.

  24. There are protocols for denying passenger boarding and using social media. The Capt may be “right”, but he will be answering some questions from management if he skipped these ptotocols, and the passenger files a complaint.

  25. The pilot is going to have to prove that swearing at a gate agent posed a threat to the safety of the flight.
    That’s going to be difficult to do in court…
    Pilot may just have cost UA a lot of money.

  26. Captain was 100% right and I applaud him.

    @Sammons: No…banning alcohol is not the answer. Banning irresponsible adults is the answer and that’s what this Captain did…and right on the spot.

    My friend in HR always tells me…the best way to get rid of a problem employee (person) is to never hire them in the first place.

    I think this was the Captain’s version of that adage!

  27. Another sad OPM flyer thinking theyre the sh!t because they have airline status.

    Good job on the captain, shouldve banned him from flying for next 24 hours. One missed powerpoint presentation and the corporate bossman wouldve been mad at poor willy.

  28. Fine line. 49 usc s 44902 has intent for safety. How far does this extend away from aircraft? If customer is f-bombng the reservation agent 100 mi from airport? The proper approach would require a fair warning to customer to not use fould language, giving choice to 1K flyer. Because if not, the fine line into Arbitrary and Capricious gets crossed quickly. Just saying,…

  29. Not impressed with the pilot actions. Didn’t take 5 seconds to inquire what the issue was and possibly defuse the situation.

    Nope pulled the DYKWIA just like the passenger. He “assumed” a lot from overhearing a confrontation. Then ran to social media for his pat on the back.

  30. After working 30+ years in CS, this is a regular daily occurrence. When hasn’t a NY/NJ passenger used colorful language! The planes to EWR would be empty, if denied for dropping the f-word. Capt needs a lesson in tolerance. If the gate agent needs support in handling a passenger, they can call their supervisor – once the passenger are onboard, then the capt has the authority to have them removed. It’s like Munchkinland, he has no power outside of the airplane.

    As for him getting in trouble for posting this on SM, the pilots union is strong, he will face no repercussions.

  31. Captain was correct in his actions. The customer is not always right and this one was not. And the Captain does not need to know or see the other side of the argument. If he sees that type of behaviour he knows if it is continued on board, the passenger is a danger to everyone in that aircraft.

  32. It’s an assumption that $18k was spent – could be a corporate contract perk or million miler partner. And with United’s head-start bonuses could be less than 18k even if done the standard way.

    There is a difference between using the F-word and using the F-word *AT* someone. If the latter, absolutely do not let that person on the plane, they are not in the state required to be cooped up in a metal tube with hundreds of other people.

    If the former, still probably don’t let them on the plane, and chalk that one up to “Don’t think you can coast through life being an *** without consequences.”

    Whether the UA staff “started it” is completely immaterial.

  33. While I’m as tired as everyone with the behavior on aircraft today the pilot really should have stepped in and found out what was going on. Had the passenger been jerked around for 24 hours with rolling delays while being given very little info? Was the gate agent a smart a**? He should have gotten some context and acted from there.
    I recently had a young employee and his wife fly for the first time. He was quizzing me as they were a little nervous. After he said they were flying Southwest I paid for Early Bird as an anniversary present. Explained about luggage and boarding and if there were issues call me and I would help them out. Fortunately it was direct flight. My last advice was that no matter what happens don’t engage with airline staff unless absolutely necessary. If they had to sit in vomit with a screaming child pounding their seats just suck it up for two hours.

  34. Agree with Pilot. Bad behavior is out of control. There needs to br more call-out and consequences to the perp of such bad behavior. I applaud the pilot. Need more of this!

  35. Gary says “It’s Newark, so …”

    For some reason, I was expecting this to lead to “It’s Jersey, that’s just how people talk here”. Haha

    For the others posting here asking why is Gary posting this, and the pilot did the right thing, it sounds to me like Gary is actually not criticizing the pilot in this particular post. I could be wrong, idk

    Also I would agree with what the pilot did. The pilot and gate agent are on the same team. So he was just sticking up for his teammate. I would have done the same thing if I were in that position (thankfully I don’t work in a public facing role at my job; I don’t know that I could handle it. I did a little of it when I was younger and more patient)

  36. So the pilot pushed the cussing guy onto some other pilot’s plane and felt proud enough of his decision to post it to social media? There is more than one bad actor in this story.

  37. I was not criticizing the pilot, I thought I was clear on that. I found the incident interesting, and worth flagging the parameters under which the captain has this authority.

  38. Well, one thing that’s a joy about Flyertalk is anonymity. However with a specific incident like this (even though it was months ago), United probably is aware of who the poster is now!

    Human decency seems to have gone out the window, and I’d boot the customer too. As a former counter & gate dragon (and mgt too), I’ve denied boarding due to unruly behavior (and I have pretty thick skin). In fact, one time it happened in our ticket lobby, with 2 other airlines beside us (and all could hear), I told this couple they weren’t flying on us today, and if they keep it up, I bet these other airlines won’t let you fly them either. That’s when the supervisor from Airline B (who was in position next to me) even jumped in and said “I won’t sell you a ticket..”. The 3rd airline also refused to sell them a ticket, but the 4th (they were in a different lobby) did take the customers and they missed that flight – they were in the bar dunk, and that escalated into another screaming match. *sigh* You can’t fix stupid.

    Flyertalk pilot poster did the *right* thing, now was it following policy, probably not. But I bet you everyone within an earshot probably won’t act like that, ever, and understand Captain’s Authority.

  39. Profanity is not any more common in educated, well-to-do circles in Jersey/NY metro than anywhere else. Bad manners exist in poor/poorly educated places all over the country. Newark is poor, but for the international airport. There is extreme wealth inequality in NY metro so some parts are very poor, whereas others are very rich.

    If you are on a United TCON as a 1k, you are most certainly not the type of poor whose ill manners can be brushed aside.

  40. I fly frequently and have seen this kind of behavior at the gate, and because they are rewarded like toddlers that throw a temper tantrum, it only escalates inflight. People that have zero self-control are a safety risk, no doubt about it. Ask any flight attendant how many time they have been physically assaulted..the number it eye-opening. I would not be surprised at all if Mr 1K was intoxicated. At some point there need to be consequences for unacceptable behavior.

  41. Passenger didn’t get kicked off for using the ‘F’ bomb. Passenger got kicked off for using it repeatedly, while verbally attacking the gate agent. Clearly showing the passenger could not control his temper.

    And what about the other passengers waiting at the gate, especially children. Wouldn’t they be uncomfortable watching the man abuse the gate agent. Some passengers might intervene to protect the gate agent. I think most wouldn’t want that man on the plane either.

    No personal information was given out, so there is no ethical violation committed by the pilot. Pilots, flight attendants, and gate agents should be free to tell their stories, as long as they don’t violate privacy laws and airline policy. Especially at this current time, when many passengers can’t control their tempers or actions.

  42. “It’s Newark, so reasonable to assume they were receiving poor service.”

    No, it’s not reasonable.

    Not one bit.

    It is unreasonable for you to post that within context, context I’m comfortable telling you that you can’t back up.

    And, no, I’m not from nor do I live (or for that matter know anyone) in New Jersey.

  43. Gary – there is no need to cite the federal code, which prescribes when a carrier is REQUIRED to refuse transport – a much higher standard than those in the airline’s own condition of carriage, which basically says that they can deny boarding for just about any reason they see fit. Verbally assaulting the gate agent is almost certainly included.

  44. FAA Zero Tolerance rule is still in effect. Abusive language is considered unruly behavior. Guy is lucky he was only reaccomodated and not formally reported.

  45. How many of these entitled people do you think United’s Newark staff deals with on a daily, no, hourly basis?
    “It’s Newark, so reasonable to assume they were receiving poor service.”
    Everything you *may* have said after your ignorant comment is now NULL AND VOID.

  46. @Lars
    You’re incorrect. This type of behavior in public goes against social mores. Even at Newark in
    International Airport.
    Would you find this behavior acceptable at a restaurant? How about Amsterdam Schippel airport? London Heathrow? At a museum? At a hotel lobby? I’m thinking even in the United States, and many of these other places, the police would be called.
    Someone who is so out of control that this is the way they respond needs to be kept on the ground six miles off the face of the earth..

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