4 American Airlines Passengers Had Their First Class Seats Taken Away – And Given To Employees

Last week four American Airlines passengers were downgraded on a flight from Charlotte to Honolulu because they ‘arrived at the gate too late’ even though they were there 25 minutes prior to departure. Their seats were given to employees or relatives or employees to enjoy instead.

The gate agent who did it was wrong, but there’s a confusing rule that should be clarified.

  • American says to be at the gate 30 minutes prior to departure (for domestic flights, 45 for international)

  • But they don’t actually give away your seat as long as you’re there 15 minutes prior to departure. Usually…

Paying Customers’ Seats Were Given Away To Nonrev Travelers

The passengers explained they showed up at the gate 25 minutes to departure, walked up to the boarding door, and scanned their boarding passes. Other passengers were still boarding the plane, too. Their boarding passes were rejected.

Now, these were all upgrades.

  • 3 members of the party had their first class seats confirmed months in advance with systemwide upgrades given to top tier Executive Platinum AAdvantage members.

  • The Executive Platinum traveler received a complimentary upgrade himself.

Everyone was checked in the day before, got physical boarding passes when they arrived at the airport, and waited for their flight in the Admirals Club.

When they went to board the plane they learned their seats had been given away to ‘nonrev’ travelers. The gate agent explained, they said, that they had been ‘paged’ to the desk when the rest of first class boarded and their seats were still empty so the agent “thought [they] weren’t coming.”

American Airlines ‘Concept D’ Business Class, Boeing 777-200

What Should Have Happened

Passengers have airline club memberships – which they pay for – for a reason. It’s precisely so they don’t have to spend their time at the airport waiting at the gate.

American shouldn’t have given their seats away at the start of boarding, when they didn’t board right away. They are not required to board when first class boarding is called. They only have to be willing and able to board 15 minutes prior to departure.

Ultimately there were 7 nonrev travelers up front on this flight. The boarding door was still open. The gate agent could have solved this by downgrading the nonrevenue passengers who shouldn’t have been moved up to the lie flat seats at the gate in the first place. That didn’t happen, and was the second mistake.

A spokesperson for American confirms “our policy is that we don’t unassign seats prior to 15 minutes before departure.” And after I contacted them, promised that customer relations is reaching out to the passengers.

On The Spot There Was Little The Passenger Could Do

The gate agent told them the only way they could fly is if they were willing to be downgraded, so they were assigned to seats scattered around the premium economy cabin of this Boeing 777. They’d lost their lie flat seats up front for the nine and a half hour flight.

American Airlines Premium Economy, Boeing 787-9

Faced with a gate agent who did the wrong thing, improperly downgrading paying passengers for employees, it’s tough to exert your rights on the spot. However I would have asked for a supervisor to address the improper downgrade. Time though is of the essence and the clock was ticking to boarding. If there was no one who responded right away, or they didn’t act quickly, the boarding door was going to close.

They had to make a quick decision. I’d have spent the 15 minutes trying to get moved back up to first by escalating the matter. Here they were left with the choice of premium economy or not taking that flight. They could have asked for a connecting flight up front (if there was space) or the non-stop the next day (if there was space). Either would have meant missing part of their vacation. They took premium economy, which was likely their least bad option in the moment. American clearly owes them a make-good, and needs to retrain the gate agent who gave their seats away to employees or on behalf of employees (relatives of employees utilizing the employee’s travel benefits).

Agents Giving Away Upgrades Isn’t New

I identified a problem at American Airlines five years ago with (mostly) legacy US Airways gate agents giving away a customer’s upgrade if they weren’t in the gate area right at boarding. The agent figured if the person wasn’t there, they wouldn’t be on the flight, or at the very least they weren’t going to waste time and wanted to move on to the next upgrade right away.

American tried to crack down on agents doing this. After all, people use mobile boarding passes. The airline encourages customers to use their app. They just get a push notification when they’re upgraded, so they don’t need to leave the lounge early or skip a meal in order to hover around the gate for an upgrade.

In that case, as in the case the group of passengers losing their confirmed upgrades to Hawaii, agents are not supposed to release seats until 15 minutes prior to departure. While American tells passengers to be at the gate 30 minutes prior to flight time for domestic, 45 for international, they shouldn’t lose their seats if they aren’t.

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. I am petty, but if I had a checked bag, I would have argued until the boarding door was about to close, and then at D0 asked for my bag to be offloaded and placed on the next day’s flight, for the sole purpose of ruining the gate agent’s on-time departure.

    Yes, I know that is inconsiderate for the other passengers, but I would not be above it if in a vindictive mood.

  2. Wow! That’s BS. Good on you, Gary, to get AA to make good. I think this calls for at least $1k compensation.

  3. The whole thing is idiotic. Paying passengers should not be bumped by non revs till the last minute before the door closes. The premise of “we thought your weren’t coming” is completely disingenuous.

  4. Honestly this doesn’t even surprise me anymore with AA. Sounds like just another day of American on it’s way to becoming a shit airline

  5. Apparently, Iberia (IB) is acting in the same nasty manner.

    In June, 2019, my flight from MAD-ORD had a change of equipment 4 days before flight day, As I was moved up from Premium Economy to Business, I had no issue. However, when I checked in at another airport in Spain, my BC seat had been changed and downgraded to standard Y with no explanation. So, I got to sit next to a screaming toddler for the 10 hour flight; attempting to control Gerd from the pathetic food served.

    Although EU reg #262 required to compensate me for 75% of my fare due to the downgrade, IB could care less; never acknowledging this reg requiring a refund. By January, 2020, (before the Wuhan Virus hit), I took my case directly to Spain’s ambassador in Washington. Within 2 weeks I received a call from IB in Madrid attempting to deny their hocus pocus approach; a week later, the refund was directly deposited into my bank account.

  6. If you’re not at the gate 30 minutes prior to departure, you’re considered late and run the risk of losing your seat. Plain and simple. Status does not exempt anyone from this policy. Manage your lounge time responsibly and arrive to the gate on time!

  7. This why American and Virgin Atlantic are the last 2 airlines I look at. Life time exc platinum with AA. My last flight on AA was 4/18. 3 times I was down graded on paid tickets with Virgin. Stopped flying them in 2015

  8. @Jared J. – false, American Airlines policy – which the airline confirms – is that seats should not be given away until 15 minutes prior to departure

  9. The gate agents and the 4 nonrevs need to lose their jobs over this. Shows exactly where AA’s personnel place their priority (hint, it isn’t the paying customer.)

  10. This is just more validation that I’m making the right choice by never flying on AA again. I stopped 6 years ago and am glad I did.

  11. This has happened to me before. I tried showing the gate agent the check mark next to my name on the app and the assigned boarding pass on my app, explaining I like being the last to board and saw no reason to crowd the gate. No dice. It makes me wonder what happens if I am late due to a late incoming AA aircraft. Race to catch the flight, get no food, then end up losing the upgrade. Great.

    On another note, I tried the escalation tactic another time a gate agent skipped me on the upgrade list by asking for a supervisor. They have that one down… their response.. “you are welcome to go to customer service.” This was at Miami with 15 minutes until door close… so she knew I was screwed.. escalate it by walking a mile and waiting the line (hence, miss the plane) or suck it up. Luckily I told the chief purser who fixed the situation. I’ve found crew (particularly older proud AA crew) are far more sympathetic to these issues than gate agents… particularly at MIA (one of the worse offenders). I like the idea of forcing baggage offload, but I rarely check bags.

  12. I would have done the same thing as these people did. Why be at the gate exactly when boarding starts if you’re in biz and have plenty of overhead space. I know plenty of people that want to be the last person boarding. Agree you risk your seat if you get there at 15min or less of boarding. Anything between 16-30min should be fair game.

  13. @Mark its novel coronavirus or SARS-COV-2, get your terminology right you racist.

  14. Gary, Everyone knows the airlines operate flights for the benefit of their employees.

    Get with the program…..
    I wonder what would have happened if this were paid first class.

  15. This is the consequence of “D=0” thinking run wild, and the agent should be fired, both for doing it in the first place and not fixing it once the passengers were there within the 15 min. deadline. Totally gross, but (yet another) sad example of how too many AA employees have total contempt for customers.

  16. I guess my question is why should a non-rev be picked for the upgrade over any of the paying passengers? If upgrades are in order a non-elite paying customer should be next.

  17. @jcil & @BRMM – no one should be fired! WOW!

    @JoeSchmo – these are upgrades, most carriers do not assign them monetary value, but asking for 1k doesn’t hurt. The UG were probably returned to their account, and the correct class for the fare they paid was accommodated.

    Also, it does you no good to argue with a gate agent less than 30 minutes before a departure, that’s just the rule everyone should know. GA: The sky is green, CUSTOMER: why yes it is, boards aircraft and sends an email.

  18. @DMNYC I would have done the same
    @jcil AGREE! 100%
    @JoeSchmo As a CK, it would take a hell of a lot more than $1K to keep me happy

    I observed a related situation in 2019. A321T transcon. Paid J passenger next to me. Realized seat was broken while flight was still boarding. Load was light and there were two non revs in the J cabin (AA lanyards, crew bags). Agent should have either (a) downgraded nonrevs or (b) upgraded this passenger J to F. Agent refused to do either. I complained to my corp AA contacts and was assured that the passenger was well compensated and the employees involved were reprimanded.

    FHB = Family Hold Back. This is how I was raised.

  19. This is not surprising being it happened at CLT…..the LUS GA’s are absolutely awful. I had a similar experience as an EXP but I was only flying to FLL…..despite the club telling me I was all good for the UPG and plenty of seats, talking with the GA and hanging around the gate (which seemed to annoy the GA even more)……she put non-revs in FC instead of upgrading elites and then backfilling the open MCE/MC seats with non-rev seat assignments.

  20. When/If they checked in at the club, the club agent should have noted they were in the club on their PNR. I have seen “in Club” next to names before. I agree with Jared, manage your time in the club better. Obviously not novice flyers, so they should have skipped the last drink and headed to the gate.

  21. This won’t end until an employee who does this is fired. This is why I don’t like all the talk of flight bans and fines for passengers given that cabin crew and gate gents have an incentive to make things up to excuse their poor performance. If someone speaks up for him or herself, the employee will claim a person is a threat to flight safety. The U.S. airlines have terrible people.

  22. @Jared J. – You are incorrect because 30 minutes is a legal connection; therefore, one could be deplaning as the next flight starts to board and the seat is still confirmed.

    On another note, this is American just not caring about customer service. Last month booked a J ticket with AA S it was cheaper than my usual DL. The trip had a connection in DFW. The first leg was delayed 2 hours, so I was going to miss my connection. AA booked me on a later flight, but in Y. I took it as I had to make my destination for a family function. I did ask if they could at least put me on the upgrade list of the second flight. Well, the airline didn’t and even though I paid for my seat, others got upgraded. When asked AA to make it right, I’m supposedly getting a $40 refund and 2,500 miles. Maybe will try my luck with UA when not flying DL.

  23. Being a retired airline employee, I have been moved down after boarding. I have also had to leave the plane when a passenger showed up, and I was in their seat. It happens.

    But this gate agent knew that these passengers were in the airport, because you mention that they printed their boarding passes at the airport. I am thinking that these employees were someone the gate agent knew personally, and just decided that they would give these employees/family members those seats.

    On the consolation side, lie flat is really nice flying back from Hawaii, not really needed to fly to Hawaii. So, maybe AA will make sure they get 1st class on their way home.

    My experiences with AA and Hawaii is that AA heavily overbooks Mainland departures. One should not dilly dally with boarding their Mainland flights on AA. Over an 11 year period, I went to Hawaii every year at least once. Never as a non-rev. I actually became friendly with the gate agents in HNL. Those agents are some the hardest working agents at AA. In a 2-3 hour time period, they would resolve, close out, and launch 3-5 flights with over 1,000 passengers. With overbooking/oversold on every flight. My point is agents make mistakes. Probably not the case in this situation. But mistakes are possible.

  24. This happened to me at MIA a few years back. They used the (we didn’t think your coming) when I was at the dunkin next to gate. The gate agent told me to take it up with customer service. They tried to say same thing I wasn’t there. I said I had it on video and plane was pushed from gate early so how could I not have been there. They put me on the same flight next day with business seat I had… In the gate agents defense at least he was giving my seat to a beautiful women.

  25. Very sad state
    I had a somewhat similar situation with employees given my seat from London to Minnesota via New York
    Different airlines and incoming flight late but still arrived at gate 20 minutes early. Have my seat to employee and I had to stay overnight and take early morning flight

  26. Gate agents at American Airlines are empathetic. This gate agent took the initiative to reassign four-passenger first-class seats purchased to Hawaii to non-revenue employees. Airlines know happy employees can result in satisfied customers (excluding the customers who get screwed to make the other employees happy). As a token of recognition of their customer service an unforgivable social gaffe, hopefully, this gate agent said to the four upset passengers (in a sincere and cheerful voice), “Sucks to be you today.”

  27. Gate agents at American Airlines are empathetic. This gate agent took the initiative to reassign four-passenger first-class seats purchased to Hawaii to non-revenue employees. Airlines know happy employees can result in satisfied customers (excluding the customers who get screwed to make the other employees happy). As a token of recognition of their unforgivable social blunder, hopefully, this gate agent said to the four upset passengers (in a sincere and cheerful voice), “Sucks to be you today.”

  28. Gary: it would be very beneficial for the readers to have an solid foundation when doing these types of reviews specially online. It seems that have a poor idea on how the airlines process passengers. Please educate yourself before trying to educate others.

  29. Reason number one thousand and one why I am paranoid when it comes to flying, and always try to board as soon as I am able. To much can go wrong, and I’ve seen a lot of things go wrong. Though usually it is worth it just to get overhead space (not necessary on long haul business, though) and avoid seat poachers (which used to happen to me all the time, in all classes).

  30. JoJo “Life time exc platinum with AA.” Didn’t know this was possible. Can someone explain?

  31. The gate agent was wrong but it’s not a firable offense. There’s a really good chance the nonrevs who received the upgrades had no idea that the paying customers showed up. A nonrev usually half holds their breath until the plane is in the air because they know the seats can and should be given to a paying customer if circumstances dictate the customer is still entitled to it. Customer Relations will do what they can to make this right and the gate agent will be retrained or receive whatever consequences are due from management.

  32. @drdrew and @ptahcha

    SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in Wuhan. How is it racist to refer to it colloquially as the Wuhan or Chinese virus? Do you refer to variants as B.1.1.7, B.1.351, B.1.617 and P.1 or the UK, South African, Indian and Brazilian variants?

    “It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from Chy-nah.”

    Do you dispute that SARS-Cov-2 came from China? Do you believe it originated in a US Army lab? What do you make of Nicholas Wade’s analysis of the Wuhan lab origin hypothesis? Why were the (leftist) media so eager to “debunk” this idea? You do realize the good Dr. Fauci was instrumental in getting the Wuhan lab funding to do research on gain-of-function, don’t you?


    As for what the gate agent did to those paying passengers, it is disgusting. It’s sad to see what has become of American Airlines.

  33. Wuhan is not a race. Neither is the Virus. If we can have British, Brazilian and Indian variants, we can have a Wuhan Virus. CCP propagandists and their unwitting assistants will have to suck it up.

  34. Until 2015, viruses were usually named after the area or locale where they were thought to have originated. Think: Ebola, Hendra and MERS.

    This was the case until the World Health Organisation called upon scientists, governments and the media to adhere to what it called “best practices” by naming viruses so as to minimise “unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people”.

    So skipping all the PC crap Wuhan virus is perfectly fine, nothing racist about it, maybe you’re the one that needs to look in a mirror.

  35. Wow – I am one of “those” passengers who prefers to board last before a long flight as I would rather stand and stretch my legs for as long as possible. I have no interest in PBD and overhead bin space. I fly paid business / first class and treat the plane like a bus with zero expectations of anything except my seat up front. Basically a low maintenance flyer. I will soon be flying AA many times for the first time in a long long time. I guess I need to change my ways and sit down up front and be on the longer plane even longer now.

  36. Poor decision by the gate agent. Passengers should get a full refund as a good measure for their loyalty. I just did a HNL-ORD flight and having that pod made all the difference.

  37. @ M Casey — SWUs are NOT “just upgrades”. They are discounts on a first class ticket. Many customers (including myself) will ONLY buy tickets when the confirmed upgrade is available. I sure as hell wouldn’t have boarded that flight and sat in economy for 7 hours. Putting the upgrades back in the customer’s account comes nowhere near making them whole.

  38. I think I’d have taken a picture of the GA and sent it to AA on Twitter with the message “This employee took my seats away for his employee friends.”

  39. But @ GLeff… surely its HI’s fault correct! (too “stoopid” HI li dat)

  40. This happened to my boss one time at LAX. Most years she flies well over 100,000 miles. She had a flight from SFO to LAX and then connecting onto a flight to London. First Class. All on AA equipment. The SFO-LAX flight was delayed and 8 First and Business passengers on that flight rushed to their London flight’s gate. They got to the gate 20 minutes before departure but the flight was boarded and the gate door was closed. They banged on the door and eventually the gate agent returned from the plane. By now, only 15 minutes to departure but she said the jetway had been pulled. Through an AA employee connection, we were able to look at the record and she had assigned all of the First and Business seats to non-revs 20 minutes before the flight was departing. Since the late passengers were arriving on a delayed AA flight from SFO, she could have checked to see that they had landed and were on their way to the London gate. Clearly she wanted to get her friends into the good seats and slam the door. The 8 passengers were put into a hotel and went the next day. Our client was annoyed and my boss has been 1K United ever since. A complaint was made to AA and instead of acknowledging or investigating or showing any kind of assistance or empathy, they wanted to know how we knew the exact time the seats were given away to non-revs.

  41. My name is Lucy I work for AA passengers need to be there at least 30 minutes before departure and if there where in the club which is where I work Admirals we make announcements that the flight is boarding . Now as an employee after they assigned as a seat they can’t take the seat from us either that’s a rule but the agent need to give a seat to us and door needs to be close 10 minutes before departure 25 before she should not do that !!!

  42. I just ran into this same thing. When I didn’t board with my group number, my seat was given to a standby while I was near the gate. When I tried to board near the end of the boarding process I found my boarding pass was removed and I actually was kicked off the flight due to overbooking. i was very fustrated and will not fly on AA again, for sure.

  43. One sided stories are heavily weighted to one side…… I’d like to hear AAs side…… just saying…..

  44. I think the passengers should have been in the boarding area when boarding began and how do we know what time they arrived. None of us were there. I run into passengers that lie every single day. I also have traveled and the agent skipped NonRevs all together and pushed the flight. I agree with those that said the passengers should manage their time better.

  45. They did that to me 4 years ago from Lax-Dfw as Ex. Plat. I was already upgraded to first and in my seat. They boarded the plan and told me to move to the back. I don’t give them anymore of my money since, only fly using the miles I had with them.

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