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.