Flight Diverts When United Passengers “Riot” After Being Caught Self-Upgrading

On Thursday night United Airlines flight UA90 from Newark to Tel Aviv turned around and flew back to Newark after a dispute between passengers and flight attendants turned ugly.

Two individuals decided that they needed the comfort of empty business class seats for the long journey across the Atlantic and onward to the Mideast, even though they hadn’t paid for the seats. A flight attendant caught the self-upgraders, and disagreed vehemently. The passengers didn’t return to their assigned seats, though, and in the words of someone else in the cabin began to “riot.”

The Boeing 787-10 departed at 11:03 p.m. and by the time it made it to the U.S. – Canada border the captain decided to turn around. The airline initially rescheduled for a 2:20 a.m. departure, but the aircraft’s crew didn’t have duty hours let and United was unable to source replacement crew that late so they ultimately cancelled the flight.

When the plane arrived back at Newark, officers took the self-upgraders into custody.

According to United Airlines,

United flight 90 from New York/Newark to Tel Aviv on 20 January 2022 returned to New York/Newark Airport due to disruptive passengers on board. Law enforcement officials met the aircraft upon landing. The flight was subsequently cancelled. Our team at New York/Newark have provided our customers with meal vouchers and hotel accommodation and have made arrangements for customers to complete their journeys.

It’s amazing that things escalate this way. If you’re self-upgrading, you’re taking a shot that it’ll work. It usually doesn’t, at least on U.S. and European carriers. Once you’re caught, your gamble didn’t pay off. Proceeding to argue with the flight crew, let alone becoming belligerent, isn’t an effective way to prosecute your position (unless your position is that you want to be prosecuted). You have a weak hand to play, and at that point should throw in the towel, to mix metaphors – not go all in.

(HT: Paddle Your Own Kanoo)

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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Comments

  1. A similar incident happened with AA on a Miami to London flight and had to turn back. I think these disrupters should be fined big time. Connections were missed and caused all kinds of disruptions

  2. It is theft, pure and simple. “Gee, that silk shirt is much nicer than the cotton one I bought. I think I’ll just take the silk one in place of the cotton one.”

  3. Maybe if some Civil Suits for loss of income/revenue were filed against the problem causing passengers?

  4. I agree with the above comments. Make the selfish idiots pay for the costs of canceling the flight.

  5. If only there was a vaccine against “stupid”.

    But then, these folks would probably not take it and demand to stay stupid.

    Humans . . . what a gift.

  6. Why not let the pax sit in thier new seat, but after warning them they may be arrested, fined, or banned, etc. – have the penalties at the destination. Record the conversation during the warning and get names and contact info of neighboring seat pax as back up. Even have a printed card for all distrubtions that explains the consequences. (Ther probably have their Credit card on file.) If charge the Full Fare of new seat + a $500 fine, it would help. Better than affecting all the rest of the passengers.

  7. Unless the media follows up on these cases and shows that those involved really suffered serious consequences this will keep happening. We hear about fines levied but never whether they were collected. A few lawsuits for the cost of diversion would also make some meaningful headlines.

  8. Mike C’s approach is much more reasonable. Chances are that United has a form of payment on file which was used for their ticket – and it shouldn’t be too hard to determine that before a decision is ever made to divert or return to EWR.

    Law-abiding passengers are going to get increasingly upset with airlines that can’t manage these types of situations w/o penalizing all of the law-abiding and rules-following passengers on the plane. There are ways to handle this w/o creating conflict but when the default strategy is to “do what I say or we will turn this jet around” there will be very few resolutions that work out well for everyone.

  9. Mike C and Tim Dunn are dreaming and seeing too much Netflix!. Sure, lets sue them for disturbing the peace!, LOL!!!!!

  10. i’m with Mike C.
    full fare unrestricted to telaviv from newark, what’s that like a $14k ticket?

    at first i thought, why not just drop them off in toronto and leave them stranded there,

    but now i’m voting with mike.

  11. Do you think some none like this even has a credit card that could handle such a charge? They probably have a low limit and when AA tries to charge that much it would just get denied.

  12. I agree with Mike. If these PAX have no assets to attach then there needs to be a database to ban for life any air travel in the future and cancellation of their FF program and let the flight resume.

  13. Perhaps these were travelers returning to Tel Aviv. No way the USA should let them wait to be arrested there rather than under US law. Nor even if not Israeli citizens…you want Americans punished under US law, not another country’s.

  14. That happened to me going to London from Dfw a few years ago…the agent had warned me they might try something…As the purser I went up to them and confirmed their names and announced so everyone in the cabin could hear…Sir you will be charged with theft of service when we land…so I would strongly suggest you take your assigned seat immediately!…worked like a charm and the whole cabin clapped!….unreal the things try to get away with….

  15. It is theft to use those seats without paying for them. On most flight, coach passengers can’t even use the toilet in Business and/or First. And the airline can’t just bill their credit card for the fare.

    I think inconveniencing all passengers by turning the flight around is wrong too. The penalties should be severe and discussed by the crew before takeoff. And the airlines should be able to have the destination country’s police arrest the problematic passengers.

  16. I agree with Mike C. Arrested for theft at the destination and permanent flight ban by the airline.

  17. Ban the morons for life but why should 200+ other passengers have their plans and life disrupted. Get a judgement against them in Israel.
    Israel might even prosecute them.
    The DA’s in Newark are not going to do squat.

  18. Crew does not need to deal with these idiots for 12+ hours. Things could’ve gotten even uglier. Best to offload trash as soon as a problem arises

  19. Not sure why anyone thinks either of the following a likely to happen:

    1. Foreign authorities (in this case Israeli) getting involved over a dispute concerning US laws or statutes that were alleged to have been violated in US airspace.

    2. A credit card company attempting to collect a charge on a credit card which was never authorized by the account holder.

    No one likes the idea of a diversion but without one it’s entirely possible that the offenders would have spent the flight in their self-upgraded seats and faced nothing other than a ban from the airline.

  20. Since this occurred on an aircraft, this likely isn’t a state level crime, it’s federal. Newark DAs will have little to do with it.

    I think I’ve seen on some Israeli sites that the passengers involved were Israeli. Banning them from United would cause them little pain. (FWIW, American Jews regard certain Israelis as a major pain-in-the-tuchus. They have a certain “don’t back down from a fight” attitude. I have ) I am quite sure the United captain didn’t turn the aircraft around on a whim, there was probably a fuel dump involved to get down to safe landing weight. Though I’m not sure why he didn’t divert to Boston instead of heading back to Newark.

  21. I was all over Mike C’s ideas, but I have to admit that Larry is right. It just wouldn’t actually work. Sad, but true.

  22. It’s the entitlement mentality. When people get used to receiving things for nothing, or think something is “owed” to them for no reason, this is what happens.

  23. After the aircraft door closes before take off these seats should be offered to the passengers… If their credit card clears they should be awarded the seat…
    If I can use a credit card on a food truck then they should be able to do this on an airplane.

  24. Agree with Mike. Of course the self-ugrading passengers are wrong, but they weren’t dangerous and could have been handled in better ways which protected United’s rights while not imposing so much pain on its passengers. Turning the plane around — rather than simply suing the passengers for the difference as they would do with other ticket violations – smacks of spite and petulant power mongering that really screwed over all its other customers (99% of the people on the plane) who paid for transport, and in a massive way. Best case is that hundreds of people were delayed a day and went through an exhausting experience, and many probably won’t travel during the sabbath so are effectively stuck in Newark until at least Saturday night – nobody knows what these people missed, funerals, important meetings, childcare obligations, etc.. What the self-upgraders did was outrageous, but not nearly as outrageous as United’s response to it, and United’s self-congratulation for turning the plane around is really untoward and without self-awareness.

  25. @ChrisinNY You aren’t wrong, but I think you’re focused only on the self-upgrading passengers’ “sense of entitlement.” But what about United’s sense of entitlement that they can turn around a plane filled with hundreds of innocent people — people who have paid them collectively hundreds of thousands of dollars for transport — and cause them all to be terribly inconvenienced or to miss important obligations so that United doesn’t get screwed over a delta of less than $10K that they have other ways of collecting? Ironically, in order to avoid the risk that these jerks steal a few thousand bucks from them, they have cost themselves an exponent of that by having the crew time-out, having to fuel up for another take-off, losing expected equipment in Israel that probably cost them the cancellation of the return flight, and hopefully some compensation to innocent passengers for the hell that UAL put them through. So let’s spare a moment to think about why United isn’t suffering from a sense of entitlement here, which purposely compounded a minor situation into a debacle?

  26. Is there an update on how violent the
    “riot” was? Maybe the crew felt it was too dangerous to have potentially very violent passengers running around on a long flight?
    Asking for a friend…..

  27. @Jorge The fact that only the self-upgraders was arrested should tell us all we need to know about the “violence” of the “rioters.” Cabin crew tend to be dramatic when rationalizing their flexes.

  28. Retired flight attendant here! I had a similar incident on a domestic flight. Two ladies moved up to first class and refused to move after I politely ask. I told the Captain to call ahead and let the gate agent know about the situation. I said nothing else to them and gave them a nice service. When we landed an agent met the flight with the police. They were escorted to the ticket counter where they were told they would either pay full fare for the first class tickets or they would be arrested for theft. Not only did a one hour domestic flight cost them each another $500 but their return flight was voided because it was the cheapest fare and had many restrictions for use.

  29. @mak they were not complying with crew instructions. Diverting and arresting is appropriate, so is a $100k+ fine.

  30. I got caught self upgrading once on a United flight. The conversation went l like this..

    Attendant: – You need to move back to your original seat.
    Me – heh seriously? These seats are nearly empty. I’m literally sitting next to a crying baby(which was true) but if I need to go back, I will. I don’t need any extra amenities, just wanted to relax for a couple minutes.
    Attendant – (long pause then a sigh) – Ok, you can stay here. Just be quiet.
    Me – Thank you so much.

    and there we go – My attitude and demeanor during the entire exchange was pleasant, clearly willing to go back to his original seat(which I would have) and just not being an entitled asshole. I was clearly wrong, got caught – But the attendant could relate, and let it slide.

    Moral: Just don’t be a jerk.

  31. You know, our goal should be a society without classes! [Goes back to coach] Do you realise that the people up here are getting cookies!

  32. When you board an aircraft, you had better know that the Captain has the responsibility for the safety of the flight and the legal authority to enforce it! That applies of all U.S. aircraft including corporate aircraft. They may fire you, but you still can take legal action as warranted.

  33. EWR to Tel Aviv, I’m guessing security / air marshal on that flight. Wonder if marshal would get involved in a self-upgrade situation?

  34. Pure and simple theft. Their names should be made public and they should be put on a no fly list.

    This is costing the airline and the passengers, to Tel Aviv and those on the return flight, money and inconvenience, so they should also be made to cover these costs

  35. Why is nobody saying the obvious? Make it a federal crime punishable by law with jail time, a fine and a life time ban on all airlines. Then enforce it and put it on the front page of every newspaper for deterence. There needs to be new laws enacted immediately for these people who think the rules don’t apply to them. That includes those who refuse to wear a mask and then assault flight attendants. There has been a huge increase in incidents, over 5, 000 last year.

  36. There needs to be legislation passed immediately making it a federal offense to disrupt a flight, refuse to abide by any safety measures that are in place (masking for example), assaulting or verbally abusing flight attendants or other passengers. HEAVY fines, lifetime no fly list, and in severe cases, jail time. In this case they should also be made to pay the difference in the fare.

    Then ENFORCE the law and whenever anyone gets charged, put it on the front page of every newspaper in the country and name names. All of the above should be written on every ticket purchased and consented to by signature of the passenger.

  37. Sorry UAL your airplane, your responsibility …to give the paying customers their money back, or compensate them for their loss somehow.. if you take the stand of equity for all inclusive and follow that narrative you must pay for your mistakes… not just send your paying constituents packing due to your error!

  38. I like Mike C idea but in the ideal world it might be achievable. What if these idiots decided to temper with the airplane or cause some kind of problem? Isn’t it putting everyone in danger? These are a day long flights and try to imagine all the worst case scenarios if they decided to pull another stunts. I think, the airlines have thought through this and it’s the best outcome for everyone involved. Always safety and security out weigh inconveniences.

  39. I agree with @MikeC but LOVE @Allison’s take. United now needs to sue the pax for all the losses incurred, that can’t be a cheap amount. Sure, let them sit up there, even give them service, then charge them the full gate walkup price! So much better than turning around. Now if there’s a safety issue that’s a different story.

  40. Frankly, I expect pilots to think outside the Box for wider ramifications:
    1. Agree, the free upgraders are used to unjust entitlements for decades and should be prevented from robbing, the action to turn around was lame affecting the other 100 plus passengers who might have missed various commitments due to the cancellation of the flight therefore the price of two upgraded tickets is exponentially much lower than the burden of cancellation on the other 100 plus passengers.
    2. They simply should have been dumped in Bangor ME or at the next destination (if doable), instead of turning around to the origin leading to the cancellation of the flight

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