AWFUL: United Forces Child Over 2 to Sit in Parent’s Lap After Giving Away Seat to Standby Passenger

Shirley Yamauchi was flying Houston – Boston last week for a teacher conference and brought her 27 month old son. His ticket cost $1000. They boarded in Houston for the 1600 mile flight and he was seated in his seat but another passenger — who was cleared off the standby list — appeared with a boarding pass for the seat.

The mother says she “told the flight attendant about the problem, but the woman just shrugged, said the flight was full, and walked away.”

“I had to move my son onto my lap. He’s 25 pounds. He’s half my height. I was very uncomfortable. My hand, my left arm was smashed up against the wall. I lost feeling in my legs and left arm,” she said.

A parent isn’t even permitted to fly with a child over two years old in their lap, but in this case she wasn’t given a choice.

The woman is Asian, and had April’s David Dao dragging incident firmly in mind and says she was afraid to speak up more forcefully.

United says that the gate agent scanned the woman’s boarding pass but not her son’s. Their system had the boy as a no show, so they cleared someone onto the flight. The airline is apologizing, refunding the boy’s ticket, “and providing a travel voucher.” And they are “working with..gate staff to prevent this from happening again” which is the sort of thing it makes sense to say but in practice may mean little more than sending a memo.

Ms. Yamauchi feels like she did everything right, buying ” both of these tickets way in advance” and checking in two hours before scheduled boarding. “I had my receipts. I had my boarding pass” she says.

Houston is where United had law enforcement remove a couple flying to their wedding in April, where a woman said she was kicked in the head by a United employee last month, and where a 71 year old man was pushed to the ground by a United agent.

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. Reading this article and the related comments is so depressing. I usually do not travel domestic and always take a non US carrier out of the country. What a pleasure it is to travel British Airways, Virgin, Emirates or Singapore. Even their economy seats are luxurious and the business class are absolutely fabulous. The service is so good too. The attendants are thoughtful and will try to solve any problems. Reading about the local carriers makes me glad I don’t have to put up with them.

  2. If the mother had spoken up more she would have been treated by Mr. Cho in the following post.

  3. I have an 18 month old daughter who 27.4 lbs, new flash if I had bought her a ticket and the gate agent screwed up I would have said no your screw up tell them they need to de-board and I would have record the whole thing on my phones voice recording just to make sure these clowns could not lie about it later. Kick us off and I will sue the shit out of you

  4. I too only fly international carriers out of the US. American carriers within the continental US are a big joke. They all should go out of business. I wouldn’t even fly a “dead body” on one.

  5. Given that situations with flight attendants can escalate unnecessarily and with news stories about threats, intimidation, and refusal of passage, I think the passenger handled it well. Traveling with a 2 year old is challenging at best. As usual, United and their apologists shift the blame. With all of the cards stacked against the passenger, most just want to get to their destination uneventfully.

  6. I’m almost certain that 121Pilot has this situation nailed. What we have here is almost certainly a garden variety screw-up on UA’s part. The gate agent failed to scan the kid’s boarding pass and — voila — somebody showed up for the “empty” seat. This happens with some regularity — probably a hundred times a day. (I’ll assume the pax didn’t INTENTIONALLY hide the kid’s boarding pass for a refund). Once somebody showed up for the seat, the mother HAD to explain the situation to the flight attendant. It wouldn’t be hard. You say “My son has a ticket — here it is. He’s too old to be a lap child.” She doesn’t get up for the other passenger. The flight attendant then gets this ticket to the gate agent, and they de-board the standby passenger. I’d almost guarantee it. But since she just shrugged and didn’t say anything to the flight attendant, how could any other outcome occur? It’s kind of like a waiter bringing you the wrong food. If you don’t say anything, how can the restaurant fix the problem?

  7. UNITED HAS LEARNED ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. They continue to boot passengers even when the passenger said, “I paid for two tickets and two seats.” Instead the attendant shrugged her shoulders and said “Oh well.”

    A customer saying “I paid” means absolutely nothing to this this moralfree & cold as stone megacorp.

  8. GARY LEFF HAS CHANGED HIS TUNE. When the doctor had been removed & bloodied, Gary Leff wrote an “apologist” article defending United and blaming the victim.

  9. This is not just a severe indictment of United, but evidence clearly depicts an historical trend over decades, never identified or corrected by the FAA.

    In February, 1993, I experienced the same issue on a Sunday afternoon flight between Orlando-Chicago. Although abiding by the FAA rule to purchase a seat for a child over 2 years, my almost 3 year old daughter was put in the lap of my wife so a last minute passenger could be boarded. I was seated elsewhere, and my wife did not know the FAA regs–but the flight attendants certainly should been well conversant with them.

    When I found out what happened, realizing my daughter could have been injured-or worse-in turbulence, or a bad landing, I reported the scenario to the FAA. They later informed me that United did not even offer a defense, and just paid a high fine.

    Despite all the promises recently made before Congress by airline CEOs, the only answer is to put these carriers-and their officers-in a legal straightjacket. Just as Congress seeks to hold CEOs of pharmaceutical firms personally culpable for fraud and other irregularities perpetrated by their employees, so should such a doctrine now apply to airline CEOs. And the excuse, as given over the Dr. Dao incident that it was a regional carrier flying for United, does not hold water.

    This contempt for the passenger is embedded in certain US airline cultures, and must be purged and expunged if people are to trust the airlines. Enough excuses, pontificating, and promises made with a wink!

  10. American did this to my grandson 2 months ago. The seat was paid for and they over booked and took his paid seat! son in law was threatened by attendant stating, you don’t want to be removed from the plane do you? worst part is AA has refused to refund the money that they paid for the seat. They said case is closed and will not respond to them.

  11. American did this to my grandson 2 months ago. The seat was paid for and they over booked and took his paid seat! son in law was threatened by attendant stating, you don’t want to be removed from the plane do you? worst part is AA has refused to refund the money that they paid for the seat. They said case is closed and will not respond to them. They lost almost $1000 on the trip

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