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 have noticed on many occasion that AA did not upgrade me when I was first on the list, boarding started and first had a few missing passengers and it was way past 30 minutes before departure. At best the agents are inconsistent but at worst this situation is a huge customer service failure. In some cases I noticed empty seats in first after the flight left….why….why didn’t they upgrade me, I asked and it was said that this was the gate agent’s responsibility. Flying nearly 100 flights a year with AA, this happens frequently and it needs to be addressed.

    Now, as to the people who can’t resist and jump to name calling and calling people racist….it’s time to graduate middle school and learn how to have a civil conversation despite disagreement.

  2. @cargocult – it’s casual racists like you (yes, Mr. “Black folx” as you like to demeaningly put down people) and the former POTUS calling it the Kung Flu / Wuhan Virus, who have helped drive hate crimes against AAPI people over the past year. Stay Proud, Boy.

  3. @ Todd — You should file an FAA complaint for being denied involuntary boarding compensation. That is a violation that is taken very seriously.

  4. Sounds like the seats should not have been given away. But since they had, isn’t there an upgrade priority list? UA boarding gates have it on rhe monitor for example. Were non-revs the next up, over paying passangers? Sounds like more than just those who lost their upgraded seat got screwed.

  5. How come passengers who are NOT paying get to sit in 1st class in the first place?

    You would think a free flight to Hawaii would be a fairly good deal.

    Maybe pick a girl, guy or couple from a less prestigious section and give them a lifetime memory.

  6. @cargocult – if you know where the virus came from, perhaps you can enlighten us. Wuhan is simply the first location where virus was uncontained. No one knows where it originated.

    @David Lee – if you can confirm the official name of the virus changed to something else, please provide it. Otherwise, any reference to the virus to a colloquial name is simply ignorance.

  7. I’d be fuming if I was one of these passengers who got downgraded.
    Regarding the gate agent who’s responsible for this, assuming that these downgraded passengers had checked luggage for a trip to Hawaii, did the gate agent really believe that these passengers would not be coming? If they were no-shows, wouldn’t their luggage have to be removed? It seems like a flimsy excuse to think 25 minutes prior to boarding that these passengers would be no shows. The gate agent should be relieved of their duties and moved to work other, non customer facing, areas within AA or be outright fired. There is no making up for extraordinarily poor travel experiences and the gate agent should never be in a position again, to ruin passenger experiences.

  8. AA’s gate agents are not just inconsistent but seem to be more often consistently bad. I took the same early morning flight for years, even knew the agents by name, they were still impolite and bad at their jobs. AA has a problem and, unfortunately, it’s not even a new problem

  9. There just aren’t that many lounges that are nice enough that I would consider there to be much difference between sitting there with a beverage and sitting in business class with a PDB. I’m a low stress traveler, and try to achieve that by minimizing opportunities for things to go wrong and leaving plenty of time.

    It is an individual choice. I used to be one of those people cutting it close and running through airports, but I decided to change, and I like this a lot better.

  10. Employee attitudes will improve when the beatings stop.
    Customer attitudes will improve when the beatings stop.

  11. AA isn’t the only airline that does that
    Alaska has done it many times
    Being a million miller / 75k gold

    They once canceled my connection flight along with 3 others on the same ticket and had me call to rebook because of COVID
    The person I spoke with did not
    Know what they were doing because we paid for first class and when they rebooked we were in coach and had to pay 100 more each
    Even though our first flight did not change just our connection and in the time of COVID when all flights were being canceled

  12. Not an AA employee, but in the airline industry.

    Gate agents at AA are suck between a rock and a hard place. They have tremendous pressure to get fights out on time – their job is on the line for not closing the door even one minute late (if it happens repeatedly on their flights). American has been big on their “departure time” metrics lately.

    Boarding can’t start early. Contacts with flight attendants won’t allow it – and the fight crew isn’t getting paid during boarding, so good luck getting all the FAs to start working 5-10 minutes early for free when they have very few breaks in their 10-14 hr days. Then, you can have several wheelchair or aisle chair passengers that add to the boarding time, the need to gate check bags, etc. Now add trying to manage upgrades, clearing standby passengers, and monitoring any late connecting passengers as the clock is running. It’s a tough spot to be in.

    I don’t think there was any malice on the part of this agent. The agent saw the pax were not on board, probably thought there was minimum time to close out the flight, and cleared the standbys.

    I’ve seen articles and talked to friends at American complaining about agents closing out flights, and not clearing all the standbys (employees using their benefits) while the flight departs with empty seats (economy or otherwise) the employees should have been given. If this agent waited any longer, and those 1st class pax hadn’t shown up, this article could have been about how standbys are getting left behind instead. So easy to criticize when it’s someone else.

    It all comes down to underpaid, overworked agents given 45 minutes to do a 50 minute job, with little support from their management, and no authority to use common sense to solve last minute issues (like get boarding, upgrades, and standbys boarded properly, and the flight closes out 10 minutes late, because the crew can make it up and still arrive on time on a 9+ hr flight).

  13. First, this was unfortunate. Second, I have been on the other side of this equation and FAs and gate agents have never had a problem either requesting that I move to another cabin or even deplane. I hope AA responds appropriately to the passengers who did not get to fly First by at least giving them confirmed upgrades that they can use on a future flight. While that won’t make them whole, it would at least be a step in the right direction. I do not question the gate agent assigning the first class seats to nonrevs, but I do wonder why the nonrevs were not simply moved to coach. But I was not there, so I will defer to the employees involved while wishing that it had not happened, and that additional employee training will take place to prevent similar situations in the future.

  14. @ua-nyc (chrissy teigen is that you?) 99% of recent Asian hate crimes have been committed by “black folx” as you say. Crawl back in your cardboard box, little man.

  15. Non-Revs (which I am) always get on just before the flight is closed. If you get in first class, it’s like winning the lottery as first-class seats usually go to the platinum cardholders! This gate agent was definitely wrong!

  16. I would’ve filed a lawsuit if that was me. NO way I’m paying for a window seat, only to discover at the last minute an airline employee took from me what I paid for. No way, Jose! lol

  17. Had this happen to us. And we were at the gate when boarding was announced. It’s a known and common thing. Search flyertalk. AA does start boarding early contrary to a comment up thread. Again search it on flyertalk. Happens a lot so AA can game their on time departure statistics. An EXP should know that an AA gate agent will start boarding early, and especially true if nonrev friends want upgrading. Apparently not uncommon to HNL if you do a little research.

  18. Mr Sibley – thanks for your kind words about gate agents of which I was one for many years. I always enjoyed controlling dash 8 flights. No business class. So no upgrades. It was always a shock to the system to control a dash 8 and then your next flight was a wide body overseas flight.
    Mr Bulger – sometimes a flight goes out with empty seats and non revs are denied. It usually happens when the flight is approaching “close doors” time and clearing non revs would cause a delay. It’s a lousy thing for a gate agent to have to do.

  19. This is persistent problem with AA and they really need to change this or face some sort of lawsuit. Why are agent given so much power and AA does nothing about it?

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