Family Traveling Home From Funeral Watches As American Airlines Gives Their Seats Away

Updated with statement from American Airlines

On Sunday a family traveling from Philadelphia to Dallas – Fort Worth on American Airlines flight 410 had their seats given away to standby passengers as they stood at the gate.

The Nelson family, including their 8 month old child, had spent the past several days with Liz Nelson’s father as he passed away, and then at his funeral.

American Airlines let them know the day before their flight that their 1 p.m. departure was delayed 16 minutes to 1:16 p.m. and that was their undoing.

As a result they planned for a 1:16 p.m. departure. The husband got stuck at the TSA checkpoint because of their stroller, but they had built in enough time for this. Except that while they were in line at security American moved their flight time up 16 minutes – back to on time.

They got the flight change text 17 minutes before their new departure time. Liz Nelson headed straight to the gate while her husband waited on the stroller at security. She approached the gate agent, and this is what she shares unfolded:

Richard, the desk attendant, proceeded to ask my name. He also informed me there were several people on the standby list that needed to get through. I figured he took my name so they could not give away those seats while assigning seats to those flying standby.

After I gave him my name I stepped aside to call my husband and tell him to run. Our phone call lasted a minute and he arrived at the gate when we hung up. That’s how close he was. While on the one minute call the Richard, yelled to me “your phone call doesn’t matter, you aren’t on this flight anymore.”

That’s when, she says, agents started calling standby passengers. They got sent to Customer Service for rebooking, told they “should have got [to the gate] sooner.”

They found customer service unstaffed, so they returned to gate B8. The same gate agent offered them standby on a later flight or confirmed travel the next day. They spent the night in Philadelphia without their checked luggage and “had to purchase new toiletries, Pijamas, diapers and formula.”

Ironically the flight did wind up four minutes late, so it’s entirely possible the family – or at least the mother and baby – were at the gate within the allowable period before actual departure, just not the last-minute re-scheduled departure.

I’ve reached out to American Airlines and will update this post with any response. Update: American responds, “We’re reviewing this issue and have reached out to the family to apologize and learn more about their experience.”

However I think that there are two lessons here,

  • You can lose your seat if you aren’t in the gate area when it’s time to board. At American Airlines the rule is ’15 minutes to departure’ so that the gate agent has a chance to process standbys who are trying to get on the flight into the seats of anyone who won’t make the flight. This is going to get even tighter and more stressful as American moves to single agent boarding, since there will be fewer people at gates to get this all done.

  • Airlines also can change your departure time at any time. When a flight is delayed, you have a new departure time and the 15 minutes count back from that. However sometimes an airline delays a flight… and un-delays it. It’s rare that this happens so close to actual departure time, though.

The family was present at the required time to board their flight, based on the departure time of their aircraft they were given by American – which was valid up until mere minutes before. I believe the right thing to do was to give the family their seats. The agent should have stopped processing standby passengers. If anyone standing by was already given a boarding pass, preventing the family from traveling, they should have been offloaded.

But that takes extra work. It takes creativity and thought. And that takes time. They’d have to make good with passengers being offloaded, too. The safe thing for the agent is just to keep processing standbys. They won’t get in trouble for doing that.

And under current management American Airlines prioritizes the operation over taking care of customers. Stopping what they were doing to fix this might have risked turning the aircraft quickly, as the agent is required to do and measured against.

(HT: Live and Let’s Fly)

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. Gate Agent an asshole. American needs to train or retrain.And the family should receive a nice compensation.

  2. That’s American Airlines for you. My last experiences was so bad I refuse to fly them any more.

  3. I agree. When I am done with my miles, I am done with AA. Their CS IS THE WORST

  4. Looks like they tried to cut it too close and paid the price. TSA is again recommending 2 hours in advance. I’m with AA here.

  5. My husband was exec plat for years. He has gone back to Delta for his paid for tickets. We are using up our AA miles. After the AA merge with US Airways American went down and down and still headed to bottom of the heap. How low can they go? What you wrote about today is a pretty good (and sad) example. The executives at American doesn’t care about what customer service should be. (And keep squeezing more seats into coach.) They have destroyed what was once a good airline.

  6. I have had an airline do this several years ago, I believe it was Delta, where they told us the night before that the 6:00 AM departure would be delayed by an hour, so we slept in a little later. There was never an advisory that departure was back to normal. When we got to the airport for what we presumed was a 7:00 AM departure at about 6:30 AM, the plane was full and waiting for us so they could leave. I doubt that would happen today.

    What American could do if they want to prioritize operations is do so, but also be somewhat generous to passengers who get innocently harmed by this. If they’ve reissued your seat, you lose it, as it would take more time to undo it, but when it’s all done, they comp you in some way to eliminate the bad feelings and publicity like this. Yes, it’ll cost them a few hundred in meals and hotel rooms, but making up for bad publicity is expensive. Bribing people or giving them a voucher for a future flight is cheap compared to damage repair. But I get the feeling we all live in the Lili Tomlin character Ernestine’s world, “We’re a monopoly, we don’t have to be nice to anybody.”

  7. American is pretty bad. It’s a shame as I used to fly them quite a bit but now shifted to Alaska and also Delta. I’m an Executive Platinum and I’ve been trying to use my 4 Systemwide upgrades for many months with no success.

    I’ll probably shift all my business away from them due to customer service as noted in the article.

  8. “CJ” don’t blame the gate agent blame Parker and the culture at AA today. Look back at how he operated and the culture at AmericaWest. This is the sad state we Alaska FF’s find ourselves with the alliance with American/OW. Given the circumstances AA acted in the worse interest of it customers and yes CJ the agent needs to be taken out back to the wood shed.

  9. The gate agent needs to be punished and the system that allows this to happen needs to be revamped.

  10. @ Gary — Are these passengers not entitled to IDB x 3, plus costs incurred for hotel and items purchased due to no luggage? On top of that, I would expect goodwill compensation x 3. That is probably what Delta would provide.

  11. FWIW, if anyone want to gift Systemwide Upgrades my way, I’m still flying AA to Europe. No sense letting AA benefit from their expiration…

  12. Im always at the gate at boarding time or even a few minutes before. What on earth does the funeral have to do with anything about them being delayed? i’m sure other people on the flight had equally legitimate reasons for traveling. Enough with the perpetual outrage machine. Fact of the matter is these people planned poorly for their flight and missed it. You yourself have flown standby before so im sure you’d be anxious to see if you got a seat 15 minutes before the plane leaves as well, and whos to say those people flying standby wern’t also “going to a funeral” or whatever BS that makes these people’s plight more sensible for us to have faux outrage at an airline following their policies.

  13. Obviously, the passengers were foolish and inexperienced to be traveling with a child and arrive at the gate so late. Also obvious, is that the gate agent did not handle this properly. When 2 million people a day are flying, bad things will happen to people.

  14. Serious a bunch of non-related facts to try and excuse their poor planning.

    A funeral has nothing to do with this.
    “Planned for a 16 min delay”???
    That just implies they were cutting it close…and too bad they got burnt.

  15. Sad story but the funeral has nothing to do with this; irrelevant info only added to build sympathy.

  16. Unfortunately, nothing will happen to the gate agents. AA management is so afraid of their union. AA has some terrible agents, they are so bitter and angry at life. Most of them need to retire and do something else. Last issue I had with AA I submitted a complaint, I wasn’t even asking for any compensation and the customer relations person basically told me I was lying when I had pictures and videos to prove my case. Now I stick with Delta or even southwest.

  17. Their flight was at 1:16PM and they were going through security at 12:43PM? What time did their boarding pass say they were boarding for what they thought was a 1:16PM flight? AA usually boards really early. And agree with others, the funeral has nothing to do with this. Truth of the matter is this – whether the flight was at 1PM or 1:16PM is irrelevant – they were cutting it close no matter what and they didnt make their flight. end of story. This happens every day. And is not some evidence of American’s gigantic quest to systematically screw over every customer, no matter how much Gary wants it to represent that.

  18. The main lesson is get to the gate earlier. These people were not doing that, regardless of when the flight was leaving.

  19. Unlike other commenters I felt the loss of a father and the subsequent funeral provided a backdrop for the family’s potential emotional duress which was further compounded by the airline’s schedule changes. American’s overly aggressive boarding policy may improve on time performance but if it starts to entrap too many people because of tight connections, etc, it may cause people to reconsider choosing this airline. I personally try to arrive at the airport well before the flight departs but I might be in the lounge relaxing and could see myself entrapped by the gate arrival policy.

  20. I’ve learned from a few trips that you can NEVER depend on a “flight delayed” notification. I’ve seen D airlines use this multiple time to avoid penalties for over booking. They sent 2+ hour delays notifications and people didn’t leave for the airport on time. The plane was at the gate. Then, miraculously, 30 minutes before the originally scheduled time the flight became “on time” again and enough people missed the flight to avoid an overbooking situation. We always arrive in time for the originally scheduled departure. Any real delays are what our credit card lounge memberships are for.

  21. For those being critical of the family and supportive of AA there is a critical fact you seem to be missing.

    The mother and child reached the fate area before boarding was complete. Thus until she said something the gate agent had zero knowledge that they were not in the que with everyone else needing to board. Remember it was only after he asked for their names that he was able to go in and pull them from the flight.

    The gate agent was literally looking right at them as he looked up their reservation and pulled them from the flight to get standbys on. At the very least he could of told her that she and the child either needed to board now or be offloaded along with her absent at that moment husband.

    And yes the funeral is relevant to the story because airlines are ultimately in a customer service business. You don’t know if any customer at the gate that day just came from something like a funeral so everyone should be treated with that kind of courtesy and respect. It costs nothing to do so.

  22. I love how you guys Trott out the war widows and funeral attendees as of they have some special class of society all their own at an airport. What about the other few thousand people a day that this happens to that are just on their way home from a business trip or vacation? Do they somehow matter less? Are the gate staff supposed to stalk every member of the flight and know who attended a funeral and who was just out for the week for fun?

    Why are you not just calling for airlines to stop selling seats that don’t exist in the first place….you know, not commit fraud in their day to day business. I guess that just doesn’t sell as well to the ignorant masses.

  23. Once they were at the gate, the GA should have stopped processing standbys and reinstated them – they ought to have been at the top of the queue to get seats, not behind any standbys.

  24. I’ve seen something similar happen on DL. Last flight of the day LGA-BUF delayed 1 hour then undelayed. Agents were unwilling to help and referred all the “late” arriving pax to call the 800 number.

  25. Doug Parker is too busy becoming woke to run an airline. AA is a sorry excuse for a business, only being propped up by taxpayer dollars. Seriously, Spirit is better.

  26. The AA vs. family divide on here is a solid guide to understanding who views their time as valuable and who does not.

  27. Always, always, always ignore these schedule changes. Assume you will be leaving at the scheduled time.

    Those changes are absolutely stupid, as they can and will change back without warning.

  28. What I don’t understand is the airlines refusal to give them their checked bags? They can’t load the bags if the owner is not on board so why hold them overnight? We went through this during a major winter storm, we couldn’t fly and we couldn’t get our bags.

  29. Just another example of the joys of flying. AA certainly doesn’t seem to care much about its customers, and that is a recipe for long term disaster of the company. Last month my wife–as it happens going to and from a funeral but that is irrelevant here–twice paid to be upgraded to first class but each time had already sprung for a second bag fee. Two of these damn fees are waived for first class passengers on American, but the company informed us that their policy was to “never” refund them. We disputed both with our credit card company and won, but it shouldn’t have gotten to that stage.

  30. AA is far from perfect but when I see people here praising DL, this can only be a joke !!!
    AA planes are much better than DL ancient planes.
    I just booked a roundtrip Business class to Europe for 115,000 with AA, meanwhile I’ve been trying to use my 360,000 DL miles acquired through credit cards but a one-way Business class to Europe was “only” 418,000 same day I booked my AA award.
    Give me a break, if you want to criticize AA I am perfectly fine with that, but praising DL is hilarious !!!

  31. It’s hard to thing that this would have been OK had it not been for the funeral, which is the only reason why you mention it.

    And the conclusion is incorrect: the lesson learned here is not to fly American Airlines. That was their major mistake. Pay more to get more.

  32. I haven’t seen the creeping-forward departure time in Europe exactly for this reason: if you announce a delayed departure, you can’t move it up again without leaving passengers behind. Heck, even AA will give rolling delays when a delayed arrival means an equipment change, and the new equipment isn’t scheduled to land at the airport until 2 hours after the posted departure time.
    In other words, “Estimated Gate Departure” is primarily used to indicate to passengers and personnel what the airline wants them to do. In this case, the airline wanted them to miss their flight.
    I use estimated runway times (and sometimes just ETA) to figure out what the airline is actually planning. On time departure + Estimated runway arrival two hours late = stay in the lounge.

  33. The funeral and death of the woman’s father is unfortunate but it has zero to do with the story but try to make the reader sympathetic towards the passengers. Why did they feel it made sense to get to the airport so lates? The passengers are at fault. Even arriving 20 minutes early, which everyone gets emails and alerts to arrive 1.5 to 2 hours prior to departure. Another story about an entitled American not getting their way so they cry for public sympathy and will demand compensation which we will all pay in the long run.

    This turned out to be another pathetic article.

  34. Another none story. Even if the airlines said my flight is delayed, I still check at the gate. Things change quickly. This is just another fact story from social media looking at one side of the story.

    Gary. . .I stopped reading your blog for over a year and are about to it again. Report facts, not fiction.

  35. I do not expect any less from American. I can not express how horrible my last flight experience, with them was. Highlight they cost me over 4grand on a flight that was for my fathers funeral in may should of cost $ 600 they lied falsely accusing me of never changing my flight stated I refused refund and then made me buy another ticket for my son and I . they also never call u back when u call and only get recording that states they will call u back after hold 4hours. To transfer you to another 4hour hold i can not believe people fly with American it was my first my last my most expensive and my worst flight ever in a time so hard already

  36. All airlines has their own problems, but I think AA Gate Agents and customer services are not so helpful whenever we need them to help us out. Especially in Philadelphia because it happened to me twice this year and I am a frequent traveler and I fly with AA. This issue needs to be reviewed by management and hopefully we can see good customer services and gate agents.

  37. For all those that don’t understand how a funeral could possibly factor in to this situation, consider this scenario …
    You have a family member that dies and you are out of town and need to bring your child with you. You are grieving and stressed go to the funeral and the gathering afterwards .Most of the relatives and friends of the family are their and want to talk to you and see your child. Some you will not see again for various reasons…life is too short…someone keeps you late and is important to you….
    I had an out of town funeral last week, my uncle died of Covid ….
    My aunt is not that old but looked
    So worn,lost alot of weight and recovered from Covid but had some residual symptoms. I had that uneasy feeling she may die before the family reunion in a few months .
    Luckily we drove and did not have the pressure of making a plane.
    Just have some compassion for this family …anyone that has children knows how difficult it is.
    AA should have taken her immediately upon presenting her ticket and lacked compassion with her struggling with a child …I had a horrible experience myself when I travelled with my daughter when she was very young…and shame on the standbys ignoring what was happening…with the stressed and. Grieving mom. …Civility and empathy are dead!

  38. If they really needed to get home that day (and not waste another precious PTO day as she said in her statement on Facebook) there are multiple flight options on many airlines from PHL – DFW/DAL (even if you have to purchase new tickets).

    The thing is – they failed to arrive at the gate on time (she clearly stated in her Facebook post that the flight was delayed 16 minutes and they planned accordingly) and they (obviously) did not adhere to the airlines boarding policy (or plan accordingly).

    There’s more to this story than we’re seeing. Husband had the stroller. Hmmm – strollers go through TSA lines every day. Maybe he had the “secondary” SSSS on his boarding pass. If so – that could have delayed him because he went through a separate security line.

    Her posting also said “we have been very loyal customers.” We’ve ALL been very loyal customers somewhere.

    If you were on your way to get your oil changed right at 6 o’clock in rush-hour traffic, and you were delayed because the freeway was slow, or the red lights were stuck In flashing mode – and you arrived at the oil change place right as you see the doors going down as they were closing for the day and you went to the manager and said oh please I need my oil changed right now – I’ve been such a loyal customer, do you think they would roll the doors back up and say “Richard, we have another “loyal customer” here – let’s get this one done. They’d tell you sorry – we’re closed – come back tomorrow (and that’s what our AA Richard did).

    They obviously failed to show up on-time to the gate area. Note to all reading this – arrive in the gate area when your boarding pass says to arrive – whether the flight is on time or not…otherwise, we’ll be hearing your “sob” story. (notice how she didn’t put a picture of their original boarding passes showing what time they were required to be in the gate area)?

    The simple truth is they failed to arrive at the gate area on-time and the AA agent did nothing wrong – in fact he did the right thing clearing standby passengers trying to get the flight closed out for an “on-time” departure.

    Traveling this year through ANY U.S. airport is going to be maddening. Plan and pad extra time due to full airport parking lots, lack of airport rental cars, and a BUNCH of travelers who are only coming out of the woodwork because they are very “inexperienced/infrequent” flyers.

  39. Sorry for her loss, but they showed up at TSA at 12:43. If they’re such “loyal customers”, they should know AA loves to start boarding way before scheduled time, typically 40 mins pre-departure time rather than the posted 30/35 mins. Even if we ignore the delay being cancelled, this still puts them at security during boarding, which is just irresponsible of them.

    That being said, the agent was a dick, which is unsurprising for PHL. Easily the meanest AA gate agents besides MIA

  40. Reading this about the moving back of a delay with DL & AA knowing they’re not the only 2, make my blood boil. While the airlines argue, “don’t you want to leave on time?” The :16 minute example is kinda of minor, why not find one of these commenter’s experiences with greater delays being returned to on time.

    Most airlines don’t offer standby at the gate unless extenuating circumstances exist – they don’t need the added crowds waiting for a seats – stating this fact means these were non-rev passengers and quite possibly AA employees. This is where compassion should have come into play. Everyone of those “employees” were witnesses to their situation, and should have stopped to say to the GA, “Let these people board” if indeed there was shouting at the customers. To that end, everyone taking their seats could also be “An Asshole”

    To those that commented on who cares if there was a funeral – would you have read the article if there hadn’t been that tag? Nope, and neither would I.

  41. This really sucks. I’d be interested to hear the gate agent’s view of the events though before making judgment.

  42. Certainly a bad outcome for the family, but my sympathy is limited. There is enough variance in the TSA experience, that even with precheck I would never cut it that close. One can definitely say that the agent could have handled the situation better once the family arrived; however, this also doesn’t excuse the fact that the family simply didn’t allow adequate time at the airport.

  43. This is a BLOWN out of proportion media story. Standbys believe or not do have entitlements once the window closes to be at the gate. Airline employees work hard for our benefits just like you. Standby travel is TOUGH and it’s a benefits that kind of replace salary for some who are on the regional side so it’s not so free. I have a couple times in my career given up my seat after cleared as a standby when not on the way to work and an extenuating circumstance happens once cleared but in no way did the gate agent do anything wrong here. When flights are delayed ESPECIALLY during delays you should be at the gate a little bit early.

  44. Stories like this make one realize that little would have been lost had we not bailed out the incumbent airlines and instead just let them go bankrupt to reorganize into new and better entities rather than as entitled brats who treat customers like we owe them something rather than vice versa.

  45. Had situation on a DFW LHR flight on AA. Abysmal checkin service and missed flight. Glad I switched to United. Hard to do being based in Dallas. Was ExPlat 3MM on AA. Service as UA 1K has been better. Haven’t looked back.

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