Another Passenger Suing United for Being Bumped From Their Seat, But Something Doesn’t Make Sense

The New York Post carries a piece about Karen Shiboleth who says she was downgraded on a United flight in a particularly unpleasant fashion last year. And she’s suing.

She upgraded on a Newark – London flight on September 10. After boarding and shortly before push back a United employee demanded she give up her seat and take a middle in economy.

When Shiboleth protested and showed her ticket for the first-row seat, Daly “took [her] arm without consent and forced [her] to a middle seat in the back of the plane,” the suit alleges.

“Daly further insulted and humiliated [Shiboleth] by raising her voice and calling [her] a ‘c–t’ in front of other passengers,” according to court papers.

She “was paraded to the back of the plane in tears,” the suit says.

United Planes at Newark

It sounds clear that United found themselves oversold in business class and a passenger on an upgraded ticket, without status, and perhaps even checking in later than similar-situated passengers.

However I’m very much unclear about how she upgraded from economy, the Post‘s explanation makes no sense.

  • She bought a $1500 economy ticket

  • “American Express MileagePlus points plus $500 in fees to upgrade to an economy plus seat.” Clearly she wasn’t using American Express points in this manner, perhaps they were United MileagePlus miles and even earned with a Chase co-brand credit card.

    On the other hand a Bloomberg piece says she used “60,000 American Express miles and an additional $498.56 in fees and expenses to upgrade [her paid ticket] to premium economy.”

    United doesn’t have premium economy, does have economy plus, but it simply isn’t that expensive.

  • In order to spend that much you’d expect it to be miles and cash co-pay for upgrade to business class, not economy plus.

  • However she purchased an upgrade at the airport for $1,150 to business class.

While she’s no doubt suing in light of the David Dao situation and public hatred for United, hoping for a settlement as the airline looks to move forward, and the New York Post‘s vetting of how upgrades work notwithstanding this is an incredibly frustrating story.

If you pay extra for a seat you expect to get that seat. Paying even more for business class over your economy plus seat, you don’t expect to wind up in a middle seat in the back of the plane without even extra legroom. (The passenger claims that “there were other open seats in the business class cabin” which doesn’t seem likely.)

Here this is a function of United bungling its own flights, everyone makes mistakes but United does make more than they should and antiquated reservation systems and revenue forecasting systems contribute to this.

The passenger says she was offered a $750 voucher which she didn’t use. She should certainly have received a refund for what she paid to upgrade, whether it was $500 and miles or $1150. She should have been offered a business class seat on the next available flight. Indeed, United should in this sort of situation become willing to put the passenger on another airline — for Newark – London there’s Air India, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic plus there are flights out of New York JFK or connecting flights (as well as on United).

A young woman in sunglasses flying business class, who still got to travel, doesn’t offer the same sympathetic story of a doctor dragged off a flight by law enforcement and bloodied. However I’m willing to suggest there’s one thing in common.

When customers pay for a specific seat they don’t understand caveats or contingencies that the airline’s policies believe are in place. If United wants to include popups when selling economy plus or offering business class buy ups at check-in, that would be a different matter (“Would you like to pay $85 for an economy plus seat if we have one available for you at takeoff? Would you like to pay $1150 which is refundable if it turns out we decide we need your business class seat back?”). That would of course depress sales.

There’s a reason airlines aren’t trusted, and that lack of trust precludes an airline earning the kind of revenue premium that it might with a stronger brand. People choose Apple products even when they’re more expensive, phones and music devices are in some ways commodity products like traveling from A to B but Apple promises a consistent, high quality, easy to use experience.

It’s hard for airlines to do that since there’s little they can do to fly different planes than their competitors. They operate out of the same government-owned airports. The security experience at the entrance to the airport has a monopoly provider except in a handful of airports. Everyone flies the same skies managed by government air traffic control. And the government makes competition illegal, if the best airlines in the world like Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific wanted to set up shop and fly New York to Miami doing so would be against the law.

United Airlines Newark

That’s not the only thing at play here though. This is United, in a difficult situation, at Newark. Even when Continental as an airline offered better service, Newark was an outlier. So I have no doubt that the attitude of the staff member involved, even if exaggerated for the purpose of a lawsuit, wasn’t the kind of customer service you’d wish for in such a disappointing situation.

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, 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. Today, on my United flight, there were MANY infants-toddlers. Guess what, the parents left the folding strollers at the door, as they are supposed to. Everyone took their seat. There were almost 70 people on the upgrade list who didn’t make it. NO problems.

    Some of these stories are about me-me-me. I want my 5 minutes of fame, no matter how goofy I am.

  2. She’s obviously lying. No way an employee called her a c**t. No way.
    And she was so traumatized that it took 6 or 8 months to really feel the pain? GMAFB.

    As for Ms. Argentina and her stroller, she’s another complainer. She admits she wasn’t even struck but still burst into tears? And after first class upgrades all the way back home she is still looking for more.

    I hope these cases get dragged out for years.

  3. All of the victims are going to come out of the woodwork now, just as they did for the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, etc. A full employment act for plaintiff’s lawyers and a nightmare for United. I think many of us will enjoy seeing these stories play out slowly over time, as sweet revenge for every time UA failed to treat us with a modicum of decency. Hopefully this will result in a major overhaul, and not a bankruptcy, or worse just cosmetic changes.

  4. I’m personally not a huge fan of flying Southwest, but I will say that (except for perhaps their effort to make a few extra bucks on the boarding process) flying Southwest is simple. Simple can be good — especially for infrequent flyers. Travel can be inherently confusing, and weird things just sometimes happen. I can’t help but think that whatever happened to Shiboleth was largely caused by UA making travel even more complex; perhaps beyond UA’s ability to manage her reservation and certainly beyond that passenger’s ability to comprehend what she was actually buying. I suspect that a lot of the hatred that many travellers feel towards airlines right now is caused by strategies that result in affordable base fares, but layer on procedures and rules designed to make the airlines a few extra bucks but wind up being too complicated for passengers to actually understand.

  5. I just saw a Fox News story about this Shiboleth woman. She’s apparently a bona fide member of the over-privileged brat pack, so there’s really no way of telling what ACTUALLY happened to her on that aircraft.

    I agree with Donald, though — there’s an exactly zero chance that an employee used the “c-word” with her on an airplane. Her account is, at best, wildly inaccurate.

  6. Are FAA regulations and airline terms and conditions of your passenger ticket even relevant in these cases? When you buy a United ticket, by the airline’s admission you are not buying passage on an airplane, but a lottery ticket with no guarantee of any seat being available. And the lottery is rigged, as United can just arbitrarily take away your seat “prize” and award it to someone in their company.. Given this situation, don’t federal Anti-Lottery Laws apply to United, who uses the mail system to promote their frequent flyer program, and Chase, who uses the mail system to promote United’s frequent flyer credit cards to sell what essentially are (rigged) lottery tickets?

  7. Another bullsh_t story about an attention getting gold digger suing 8 months after the fake news event because she sees every one else doing it. It’s become “who can make up the most outrageous story”? The article says it wasn’t a flight attendant who pulled her from her seat and cursed at her…..then it says it was a flight attendant. And women don’t call other women the c word. Only disgusting men do that. Tune in tomorrow for the next absurd, so many months later, lawsuit against an airline.

  8. If you want a better airlines maybe you should let asian or gulf airlines operates in US domestic route.

  9. Dogs, cats, hamsters, gerbils, all these rate far above a human being!! Just like the handicapped row in an all you can eat buffet. The person is handicapped because they are in a wide-bodied wheelchair because they are over 500 lbs. Hmmmm.

  10. People get bumped all the time from business class back to economy. The ones aren’t flying paid business class (read: upgraded) are the first to be booted. Putting aside the mechanics of how she was upgraded (miles + copay, TOD, who knows) I find the entire story plausible and yes some crew members use words they shouldn’t use.
    That being said this doesn’t amount to a federal court case and she would actually be better off in small claims. But that wouldn’t get her 15 minutes of fame which is probably more important to her brand, image, blogger fans, whatever.
    The real measure of an airline is how they handle irregular ops and these situations. As Gary notes, WN has a “can do” culture – UA does not.

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