Customer Missed Birth Of Their Child After Being Downgraded By American Airlines

An America Airlines passenger tells the story about buying a paid transpacific business class ticket on American Airlines but being downgraded for their Chicago – Tokyo flight a few weeks ago when their inbound Boston – Chicago flight was delayed.

The passenger says their Boston – Chicago flight was running late due to crew availability (a flight attendant “had woken up late and was on her way”) and that meant arriving into Chicago 45 minutes late. They had to run to their connecting gate, but they made it while the Tokyo flight was still boarding.

That’s when things went wrong.

As they scanned my boarding pass, they asked me to go to the counter where they told me my seat had been given away because they thought I wasn’t coming. They offered to put me in economy.

I was quite upset considering I paid full fare for a J ticket and was already checked in through to [Busan, South Korea]. I asked what other options are and the lady was quite curt and said they could rebook me 2 days later or I can take the economy seat. I asked if there were any other flights that day and she sighed, rolled her eyes and waved to the other worker who closed the door, then handed me back my boarding pass and told me I missed the flight and need to go to the ticketing desk.

American Is Entitled To Give Your Seat Away If You Aren’t At The Gate 30 Minutes To Departure – Even When It’s Their Fault

Since he wasn’t at the boarding gate 30 minutes before his international flight, the airline was entitled to take his seat for another passenger. American’s contract of carriage says,

Be at the gate and ready to board the plane…30 minutes before departure for international flights. If you’re not, we may reassign your seat to another passenger.

Why I Think This Happened

Here’s how it should work. A passenger might be in the club lounge into close to departure, or they might be getting some food or on the phone. The airline doesn’t know who isn’t coming until boarding has finished. If a passenger no show’s, a gate agent goes on board with a new boarding pass to upgrade a passenger that’s seated in coach.

That takes time in the last few minutes before departure, and with American Airlines gate agents under pressure (and being measured based on) their “D0” or exact on time departure stats, they’re loathe to do this. It’s the same reason many gate agents start insisting passengers gate check their bags even when there’s still space in the overhead bin. They don’t want passengers on the plane with bags that need to be gate checked, taking crucial minutes that could harm their ‘D0 performance’.

An agent for this American Airlines Chicago O’Hare – Tokyo Narita flight saw this passenger wasn’t present, perhaps even looked and figured they wouldn’t make the flight, and processed upgrades – presumably to get that part of their job done and over with.

Now this paying business class passenger was there for a flight with no seat. What should have happened then? The gate agent should have downgraded the person they upgraded, with an apology and a travel voucher. That way the paying business class passenger would be able to fly in… the seat they paid for.

The Passenger Chose To Fly Up Front The Next Day – And Missed a Huge Life Event

This passenger paid for business class and was going to fly business class. They turned down flying coach, accepting instead to fly via Dallas the next day. Arriving in Busan “24 hours after [he] was supposed to” he “missed the birth of my daughter.”

The baby came early. It’s hard to hold American Airlines accountable for that, other than to say that every passenger every day has some place to go and it’s a priority for them to get there. It seems like – for the birth of a daughter – this new dad should have taken the coach seat and complained later, as long a flight as it is to Tokyo and even though he’s “quite tall and ha[s] lots of metal hardware in [his] body from a major car accident years prior” so that flying coach is “excruciating.”

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. I can honestly say that I don’t miss flying American. I gave up my Platinum status two years ago and only fly Southwest domestically now (and anyone-but-American internationally).

  2. This headline should be “Passenger Misses Birth of Child After Prioritizing Flying In Business Class.” He had a choice.

  3. Yeah, I agree with Jeff. “Passenger Prioritized flying In Business Class over birth of his child.” You dropped the ball on this, Gary.

  4. @Jeff and @KL
    NONSENSE. Here’s what the passenger said, one PNR, first flight late due to AA problem, on arrival told to rush to make connection AA KNEW where he was and allegedly held plane for him and other connecting passengers. Baby came early due to a medical emergency which he didn’t know about until later.
    1 AA sold him the complete ticket – no nonsense about him being in the lounge or…. GA has info on connecting passengers!!!! GA should have been notified in their system about connecting passenger and can see plane arrival time and gate. If someone was UG (in error -AA knew where he was and that he would make the connection – it’s all in their system) that person (sadly) should have been DG.
    2 Gate agent was rude and made no attempt to help
    3 AA treats paying J class passengers this way then wonders why they lose them.
    4 The missing the birth was an unfortunate side effect – HE DID NOT KNOW THAT AN EMERGENCY WOULD CAUSE THE EARLY BIRTH.
    5 The issue is simple – passenger bought ticket AA failed to deliver!

  5. I try to arrive the previous night for all intl longhaul flights in order to avoid this exact scenario.

  6. Yeah, AA dropped the ball here. We know they offer sucky customer service and this would never have happened on any asian carrier’s transpac.

    However, I also struggle to understand why dad was in the US when mom was about to give birth in Korea. The early childbirth was blamed on a “medical emergency.” If this was a very pre-term situation, no one should really be bringing up the missed birth. A risk of travel is that something might happen to a family member — and this is what travel insurance is for. If it wasn’t very pre-term, did no one explain that due dates are fuzzy guesses? I can’t imagine an employer — Korean or American — pushing back at a request to be home for the final month of pregnancy.

  7. Honestly , what difference does it make ? The child won’t have known the difference and it’s a story to tell at endless points in the kids life

  8. AA piss poor service strikes again! And what people fail to realize is that if he had accepted the downgrade, AA would have likely rebooked him into a Y booking class last minute. That means when he went to get ‘downgrade compensation’ from AA after the fact, the fare difference would have been minuscule between a full fare economy booking class and a likely discounted business class fare. So he would’ve gotten hosed again by AA’s ‘customer service’. I don’t blame him for standing his ground with AA, and feel bad he missed his child’s birth.

  9. I agree with William. I’d be more sympathetic if it was a loved one who was dying at the hospital and passed away before he arrived due to this snafu.
    So the passenger was flying BOS-ORD-NRT-PUS? That route has 2 stopovers with a short connection in ORD. If he can afford business class and this is truly important, then perhaps a BOS-NRT-PUS on Japan Airlines or BOS-ICN-PUS on Korean Airlines would have been better flight options to take (and better service too compared to AA.)

  10. Completely agree with @est. AA gate agent should have known that this connecting passenger was on a delayed flight but would make the flight. Now, did he give the seat away before it became evident that the flight would get in on time? Either way, it is on AA.

  11. United does it differently. On a flight from LAX to SYD, two passengers from SAN were late from SAN. The computer gave up their seats because of the delay. I took one of them, but to my dismay, they were able to make it to the gate while the plane was still boarding. United honored their seats, and since my previous seat was taken, United gave me an upgrade to Economy Plus, but a middle seat. Horrible experience, but United also gave me 5000 miles as compensation.

  12. “I asked if there were any other flights that day and she sighed, rolled her eyes and waved to the other worker who closed the door, then handed me back my boarding pass and told me I missed the flight and need to go to the ticketing desk.”

    The guy might be exaggerating, but in his statement, he is claiming that he was merely asking to get his business class seat or another one the same day when they suddenly closed the door and told him it was too late. If true, that’s the worst part of the story.

  13. I agree with the passenger in this case- what a horrible way to treat a paying customer, J or otherwise. The RIGHT thing to do would have been to get him on the next flight in J no matter what airline it was on. Period. I do this all the time with delays if the option on the airline I am flying doesn’t work I tell them to find me one that gets me there as close to the original time in my class. Unless I am going somewhere totally out of the way (which I do for work!) they make it happen.

    Saying it’s the passenger’s fault is ridiculous. First, he didn’t know the baby would come early, second, he paid for a J ticket and should have been accommodated over an upgraded passenger. It would have taken exactly five minutes to fix this and almost certainly zero delay. Airline customer service failure. If he had a frequent flier status with AA he should bail on them and tell them why.

  14. Yes the passenger had a choice.
    Fact though is AA was just inefficient and lousy as they usually are.
    None of us reading know how bad the injuries might be for passenger which is why he decided to hold on for business class next day. Can’t fault him for that.

  15. Headline should read ” Millennial finds out the world doesn’t revolve around them!”
    This is not an AA issue, I have seen it happen on countless airlines because people are not accountable for their own actions. You as a passenger have responsibilities too! Tired of people thinking only about themselves and looking to blame the a company. If this person truly cared about the birth of their child they should have taken any seat possible.
    I have done this to get home to be at my father-in-laws bedside to be there when he passed away, to be with my Mom when she had emergency surgery. . . Millennials grow the Up!

  16. The “birth of the child” bit is irrelevant, needless drama. But if the story is true — which I’m not 100% sure of, because pax misrepresent facts all the time when telling their airline stories — the gate agent needs remedial training on seat reassignments. Nobody should lose their seat because they’re inbound aircraft is running a little late. The time to have upgraded someone would obviously be as the door closes.

  17. any Asian airline will have an agent waiting at the gate to pick up this pax & fast-trak him to the departure gate.

  18. Paid ticket is the key. AA gate agent screwed up by not DG the other passenger and giving this person the seat he purchased.

    I’d be that this wouldn’t have happened if they guy had AA status…

  19. Any seasoned traveler has experienced a version of this in some way and it should not come as a surprise. I agree it would be preferable if the airline honored paying customers instead of upgrades but that’s the procedure the airlines and their faulty management prefer. AA customer service is ” do the bare minimum until my shift ends,” the fact they offered him an economy seat actually sounded shockingly generous to me. And this cry baby chooses not to take it. Medical condition, sure. Ugh, could you imagine being married to this guy? I bet nothing is ever his responsibility.

    Basically these stories should be filed under when a novice flier gets his or her wings.

  20. I know I’m being an apologist for terrible customer service (if this story is true as told)…but I can’t help but feel like there’s a little bit of “DYKWIA” (do you know who I am?) fatigue with gate agents due to constant issues with elites and non-revs in less critical situations. And they don’t give the attention they deserve to a passenger who actually paid thousands of dollars for a ticket because they are too numb to the myriad stupid little problems that other people throw at them all day long.

    There really isn’t a set dollar amount – but any paid premium cabin passenger should be getting the red carpet treatment every step of the way – even if it has to come at the expense of other passengers (it shouldn’t, but it may…). That passenger contributes so much more to profitability it is critical to keep them happy.

  21. FWIW, I fly nonrev on United and in my experience their agents are very good about not giving away people’s paid seats, especially when they know there are people due from a connecting flight. I was once given a boarding pass with 11 minutes before flight time, the paid passenger showed up just then, and the boarding pass was revoked.

  22. What if the upgraded passenger had refused to get out of his seat? Would this have been a drag him off the plane United-style situation?

  23. Why didn’t the passenger find another airline (KAL, maybe) for the overwater leg to Korea, and then have AA refund his ticket?

  24. The AA treatment isn’t surprising. I’ve experienced it too and missed a flight in paid business due to AA problems. United matched my Executive Platinum status and, as a 1K for the past two years, I couldn’t be happier.

  25. This article reads like it was written by an airline lackey and everyone saying he should have flown coach is equally as bad. According to the article he had multiple metal implants that would cause his excruciating pain. A flight from Chicago to Tokyo would be well over 15 hours. You people expect him to sit in AGONY for that long? Even if it is the birth of his child there is a reasonable expectation of comfort. AA is the crappiest airline and thankfully I never fly them. Flew them ONCE and swore never again. They should be investigated

  26. If you actually read the thread, the pax purchased the business class seat because of a physical limitation of some kind (I forget the details) that makes flying long haul economy painful. Given that and the fact that the birth was a surprise medical emergency, he did not prioritize flying in business class over seeing the birth of his child (which, at that time, he didn’t even know was imminent). He asked a simple question about his options (at which point the gate agent could’ve said “sir at this time you don’t have any if you want to be on this plane … you can take this seat and deal with customer service once you land, or you can go back to ticketing and see what they can do for you) and the agent closed the door on him.

    This is pretty shameful stuff by AA, though not surprising given reports of employee apathy and management pressure for D0. It was not unreasonable to make an educated guess that he wouldn’t make the connection and process upgrades accordingly. It WAS unreasonable to not re-accomodate this passenger in the seat he paid for once he actually DID show up with time to board. This reeks of upgrading a non-rev friend and not flat out not wanting to downgrade them. No skin off their back to downgrade a passenger not actually entitled to the seat.

  27. I say BS on American. They could have done way more for this passenger. AA screws up and seems to never take responsibility. This paid ticket could have easily been assigned to another carrier to get him to Busan. I’ll just have you know that Delta holds flights in these types of situations. None of this AA crap, of screwing over paying passengers, to make an on-time flight list.

  28. Gary in with the clickbait headline again. OP admits in the FT post that the trip wasn’t orginally for the birth of the child – which came unexpectedly and early due to a medical emergency – and that he might have missed the birth even if on the original flight.

    Why do we always take these one-sided stories at face value? This one is for sure a mix of AA operational and customer service failures and bad choices by the passenger.

  29. Clueless martinets posing as gate agents. These stories/experiences are one of the reasons why AA is a long-distant 3rd/last choice of the international carriers. Pathetic treatment of a paying customer.
    ‘ Woke up late’ should = fired.

  30. Let me get this straight, the first flight was delayed because AA staff overslept. That made it his fault…they gave his seat away that he paid for because they caused that delay, it’s his fault. So, it’s his fault for a problem created by their staff…that makes complete total sense….how is that even acceptable?!

  31. This issue would have never happened if AA wasn’t responsible for the delay in the first place!? I can’t believe how many people are defending AA when the FA overslept for the first flight causing the delay. Are you kidding me?! How the hell its even this guys fault just blows my mind. AA created this delay, they need to own it…

  32. @Bob – you do not seem to know what clickbait is. The story matches the headline. American downgraded a passenger. The passenger missed the child’s birth. The interesting thing is the choices in between that many of the commenters are discussing. You’ve got an axe to grind regularly yet you keep coming back. Sad!

  33. AA makes connecting flights so tight, it’s sometimes impossible to make a connection even if your flight does arrive on time. However, I have NEVER had an AA flight leave, or arrive on time. I think they do it on purpose.

  34. So, not as bad as this but I dont understand how I paid $4,500 for a business class seat from pdx to gru and on my way back I flew economy from mia to dfw and economy from DFW to pdx?


    I would never buy business class on an airline that requires you to be at the gate a full half hour before the flight. Pure madness.

    Please correct your article. And I hope the passenger in question files a complaint with the DOT — those who aren’t (i.e. are only made with the airline) are not taken into consideration by lawmakers when making new laws.

  36. American Airlines is horrible. This is why I’m fighting them in federal court. They treat the employees as horribly as the passengers. They only care about the dollars they make, humans are of no importance. I’m fighting against sexual harassment and they have repeatedly tried to force me out of my job while they let the man who harrassed me handle passengers daily … This is one reason why their customer service is awful.

  37. Poor baby. Anyone feeling sympathy for this passenger should do a reality check.

    Flying is serious business and we all follow many rules to keep it safe and affordable. We often give up our dignity, as we apologize for every misunderstanding. – knowing that any frazzled attendant can mace us and have us banned and arrested without any risk of consequence.

    But they own the airlines and THEY make the rules.

    We could have the government take it all over but then we would all be flying in Yugos!.

    many of us know what it is like to fight like mad for something. I am not buying the “too painful for Coach” thing.

    Get on the plane and shut up and get moving because you’re holding up all of us right now.

    Thank you to the gate agent (because I am afraid of you).

  38. What I don’t understand is how the Flight attendant woke up late. Even so my friend who is a flight attendant at another US airline,, said her airline has reserve flight attendants who wait standby at the airport to fill in when an emergency like this occurs. Her airline always has people who will sit at the airport for their 8 hrs just in case a flight attendant can’t make it. If a FA can’t get there in time they call the airline, let them know , and then the airline has one of their airport standby attendants fill in. So doesn’t American do this?

  39. The AA brain trust should be able to fix this once and for all. AA (and all the others) keep pushing their “phenomenal” computer systems and aps which allow customers to do all sorts of thingsto track their trips, so why isn’t that same system tracking the status of those customers on connecting flights?? The “computer” should be able to hold that seat for and disable the the “30 minute” cut-off if the customer’s previous flight is running late. If a flight is late, that’s AA’s fault and they should be accomodating that customer.

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