French Woman Flew United to San Francisco When Her Boarding Pass Said Paris. Airline Says ‘Oops’

United just settled a lawsuit with a passenger who flew from Newark to San Francisco instead of Newark to Paris.

The woman doesn’t speak English. United changed the gate of her Newark – Paris flight but didn’t make an announcement in French. The woman assumed she was in the right place. She boarded the aircraft and this is the past where there was the first major error on United’s part. When her boarding pass was scanned it shouldn’t have been accepted. Presumably the system rejected it, but the gate agent boarded her anyway.

United Has So Many Planes at Newark It’s Confusing

When the woman got on the plane and reached the seat on her boarding pass, another passenger was already sitting there. That’s another flag — if the gate agent hadn’t looked at the destination on her boarding pass, and simply manually entered her seat number, that would have been another issue since it’s a duplicate passenger in the seat.

A flight attendant simply told the woman to take a different, empty seat rather than resolving the discrepancy of two passengers who apparently had boarding passes for the same seat.

When she arrived in San Franciso she was stuck with the tab for an airport hotel overnight, and United flew her home to Paris the next day.

United acknowledges they blew it. They’ve provided:

  • a refund of the ticket
  • a voucher for another flight
  • payment for the San Francisco hotel

I’ve observed in the past that foreign airlines generally have flight attendants check passenger boarding passes at the door to the aircraft while US airlines don’t.

If United’s procedures for making sure the right passengers are on the right planes are this bad (and we know their computer systems are weak, but hope that their people are better than the computers) perhaps they need to model their foreign counterparts.

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. OK, United made some mistakes here. But come on. Are airlines supposed to be baby-sitters for adults who don’t notice that the gate they are boarding doesn’t show the name of their destination?

  2. @tommyleo no they are not. But it’s not hard to provide good customer service and caring. I have made mistakes while traveling internationally and from lack of sleep, hoping on several different flights on back-to-back-to-back days, I have almost boarded the wrong plane but the gate agents stopped me and did their best to explain (in English mind you, which they didn’t have to) what I was doing wrong.
    Did they have to do that? No. Would I have been in fault for boarding the wrong plane? Absolutely. But it’s not hard to be a decent human being and show some caring for your customers and fellow human beings.

  3. OK, this passenger made some mistakes here. But come on. Are passengers supposed to read and understand foreign languages when the airline changes gates last minute?

  4. I hope United Airlines let her earn bonus frequent flyer miles for her Newark to San Francisco travel.

  5. it is obviously her fault that she doesnt know english. it is a crime that she was in usa without knowing any english….

    it is also a crime for people from other countries to not serve american with understanable english.

  6. @jay say: I commend u on what u said.. a lot of people has that type of attitude like tommy Leo that’s why peoplE do not want to do their jobs. Why do we have gate agent for? People stand their to make sure that there are no security breach. With tommy Leo’s reasoning anybody can enter the airplane and the attitude is the passenger should know. If it was a crazy lunatic was going to enter a plane, I hope my gate agent are there to do their jobs.

  7. I’ll bet that both FAs and cockpit crew made several pre-takeoff announcements and destination checks that mentioned “San Francisco.” There’s only so much hand-holding an airline can do.

  8. Is it the airline’ss job to not let people go on flight that they don’t have a boarding pass for? Yes, it is.

  9. I’m old. I remember the days when a FA did check boarding passes, and would say “all the way down to the rear, window on the right,” or something like that. Now, there is no time for a FA to stand in the front and direct passengers, because the flight attendants are so d*** busy helping people cram their bags into overhead bins due to the airlines’ stupid baggage policies.

  10. I’m going to have to split the blame here. While United clearly should have recognized that she had been improperly boarded, so should she. The sign over the gate said “San Francisco” which even a French speaker knows is not English for “Paris.” Even an occasional flyer should have realized something was wrong when her seat was occupied, the plane was much smaller than the one she flew in on, and again with the multiple “San Francisco” announcements (with no announcements being repeated in French). UA was right to refund her, as their staff clearly dropped the ball, but this lady is no victim.

  11. No, Toby. I’m not saying that gate agents should not do their jobs. But your security-breach example doesn’t make much sense since a potential security risk would need to be on the secure side of a terminal to even get to a gate, even with a bogus boarding pass. Has there even been an example of a gate agent foiling a terror attempt? Unlikely, because that’s not a gate agent’s job.

    BTW, the fact that the passenger in the article above doesn’t speak English is an extraneous fact. I only speak English fluently, and I’ve navigated the subways in Paris (and several Asian cities) many times while having serious jet-lag.

    OK, maybe I’m being too hard on the passenger — or maybe I’ve been lucky to not board the wrong flight yet. But I can’t even imagine doing so because I’m very careful about such details when traveling since such a mistake could cause far, far more inconvenience than taking the wrong subway!

  12. @Doug – There are two flights EWR to CDG today, one on a 767 and one on a 757. 15 of the 16 EWR to SFO flights are a 757 today – so it’s quite possible the plane was no different than the one she flew to Newark on (if she even flew UA previously). I agree though that she probably should have been able to see San Francisco posted over the gate.

  13. I feel super-safe whenever I fly a U.S. airline. Their attention to detail makes sure that nothing could go wrong. Bravo.

  14. @tommy Leo, not every one is smart, careful or are intelligently bright like you. People do make mistakes, mind you people are in a rush or first time to a terminal or gate, or do not speak the language. 1- the passsenger got on the wrong plane and passed the gate agent, 2- she got inside the plane with somebody in the exact seat and FA say take another seat. 3- you still argue there is no security breach. Okay I am the dumb one my apology.. i hope I do not fly on that airline with people that think like you. Thanks..

  15. @Tommyleo you’ve been lucky. People make mistakes. I speak English well (not a native speaker but have been living in the US for years). I feel comfortable navigating airports and other public spaces, paying attention to signs. I’ve boarded the wrong domestic US flight. I was not jet-lagged or sick or anything like that. It was an ordinary day. I don’t think they even changed the gate, I think I was simply distracted somehow and went to the gate right next to the one I needed. They let me board, I took my seat. Then luckily they announced the flight’s destination and I had time to sprint out of the plane. I can easily imagine not catching the announcement (who pays attention to them anyway) and ending up at the wrong destination.

    It happens. People are not robots. Definitely you should be careful, but in my layman’s view, a large (majority) share of the blame is on the airline. I’m amazed that in this day and age computers don’t properly catch this.

  16. –Hard to blame the customer. I read English, check my flights on my smart phone, on the airport screen, and get updates by mail from trip adviser, and have found myself running through the airport due to gate changes.

    –I remember one time I flew to JFK-SFO and three days later flew back. My points to the JFK-SFO flight did not go through, but the return SFO-JFK did. I contacted the American Airlines and they said you did not actual fly the JFK-SFO segment. I had to send scanned paper copy of my boarding pass with the security signature to prove I was actually on the plane. The funny thing is, the gate person gave my ticket an extra look when I boarded. I suspect they knew that the system did not accept my ticket.

  17. “Why didnt she read the sign?”

    So many tone deaf comments here.

    I have poor eyesight. I cannot read the monitors behind the counter at the gates. When the “departure” screens are installed on the roof, rather than at eye level, I cant see them either.

    If you step into the bathroom, you cannot hear gate announcements.

    I am young, so I use phone apps to make sure Im going to the right place. Not everyone has that luxury.

    It is the job of the agent scanning tickets to ensure the right people are getting on, period.

  18. How anyone can blame a passenger is beyond me (are there this many airline employees posting comments?).

    With regards to signs — who is to say that they actually changed them to show SF instead of Paris? On a recent trip from LGA, a gate across from mine had the correct flight number but a wrong destination. I brought it to the attention of gate agents but it didn’t get fixed.

  19. In just a few moments we will be closing the boarding door for our flight to New York. If New York City is not your final destination now would be a good time to let one of us know
    Now I know why some FAs make that announcement .

  20. Ok – so I guess we just figured out a new travel hack. Book an inexpensive flight (Say, BOS to NYC) and then hop on whatever longer distance more expensive flight you really wanted to go on. A flight to Europe for the cost of a shuttle flight!

  21. Is it that hard to look at the destination on the gate’s electronic sign? Surely this French woman can recognize how to spell Paris vs. San Francisco. There comes a point when people have to start being responsible for themselves.

    Gate agent should have at least looked at the boarding pass destination when the scanner alerted which I’m assuming that it did. If it didn’t alert there are other problems.

  22. Oh my god, the comments! So much more amusing than reading Politico. Thank you, all!

  23. Perhaps she was desperately seeking this guy named mike, . sorry wrong thread.

  24. Let’s see: San Francisco in French is, hmmmmmmm “San Francisco.” Just sayin’

    (if you believe google translate.)

    And why would we have any reason not to trust Google? I mean , they will give you driving directions from Velana (Male) airport to The Sheraton Full Moon resort:
    Velana International Airport
    Airport Main Rd, Malé 22000, Maldives

    Head southwest on Airport Main Rd
    Partial restricted usage road

    3.6 km

    Continue onto Hulhumale – Hulhule Link Road/Midhili Magu
    Continue to follow Midhili Magu

    1.6 km

    Turn right onto Nirolhu Magu

    2.3 km

    Turn left onto Kuredhimaa Hingun

    700 m
    Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa
    Furanafushi Island, North Male Atoll, Maldives

  25. So many airline issues that should have been solved by the gate agent. Over booking…who let them on the plane? Wrong flight, who let them on the plane?

  26. For those of you who think “San Francisco” is spoken the same way in English as it is in French, therefore should have caught it: When announcements are fluently made in a language other than English, I tune them out for the most part. When spoken fluently, I can’t understand any of it. Even if they’re speaking a word I should be familiar with (like a city name) then accents can throw it off… and that’s if I’m *carefully* listening to the entire announcement.

    The woman gets a pass from me for missing *any* verbal announcement.

    As for the sign? Maybe she missed it for one reason or another. Who knows.

    But the airline *boarded her on the wrong damn aircraft*. There is absolutely NO excuse for that. (Different story when you’re boarding from a regional terminal or something where a passenger can access multiple aircraft.) But a narrow-body boarding from a jet bridge? Zero excuse for the airline to let her on the jet bridge.

    I once was boarded on a flight that didn’t get me to my final destination. I was bumped off of a US Air flight from MCO to DCA. US rebooked me on their Metrojet flight from that was supposed to go MCO-RDU-DCA — according to the sign above the jetway across from the original DCA gate. Except this was Saturday, and that flight didn’t continue on to DCA on Saturdays. I got to RDU and the agent was a bit surprised I was looking for the DCA flight.

    When I worked for UAX, we once had an agent FIM a passenger from CLT to CHO… because we didn’t fly to CLT, and if US Air sent him to us, they *must* mean CHO, right?

    Shit happens, and it’s the airline’s fault far more than it ever is the passenger’s. Do we blame the passenger if the airline mistags the bags? I’ve seen that happen on many occasions. The airline employees are the trained professionals. It’s not a hard job.

  27. I’m amazed it even got to the lawsuit stage. Obviously UA is making too much money.

  28. Hello Gary. I don’t know when this incident took place, however I can give you an example of my experience from only last week (and in Europe, so happens with non-US airlines). I didn’t end up at a different destination – to put things in perspective – but that said, I was effectively put in a situation that I could not return back to London.

    Perhaps this would also benefit some readers as a “warning” about code share flights.

    Booked a multi-city in business class, which was operated by one airline, where all flights had another airline’s (my top tier frequent flyer membership is with the second airline) flight numbers. I live in London and I’m a OneWorld Emerald status member.

    I left London on Friday evening and connected to a domestic flight in the destination country. For the domestic flight I contacted my frequent flyer program and over the phone requested to change seat (I did not want to sit in row 1) a few days prior to departure. This was done and boarding pass was emailed to my email inbox.

    Upon presenting my boarding pass on my mobile device – the pass wouldn’t scan. Gate agent checked me in on her computer and told me to board the flight, which I did.

    It was only after take off, when I was asked if I wanted to purchase a beverage from the menu that it struck me that “this is not a business class service”. I presented the boarding pass to the flight attendant (the pass clearly stated “business”) and was told “I’m sorry, but business class is only in rows 1&2”. I was sat in row 3.

    She continued to show me the passanger list – where my name was indeed stated in row 1. Yes, the original seat which I had specifically asked to change. When the flight attendant realised I was the passanger she commented “I don’t know how the gate agent didn’t spot this”.

    Perhaps unfortunately, there was no other passanger sat in the seat on my boarding pass. My original seat (row 1) remained vacant

    I asked her to make sure this discrepency was clearly stated on the flight report (my intention was to raise this “downgrade” when I returned to London. She assured me this would happen.

    Two days later on accessing my frequent flyer account, I saw the booking “dropping off” my account. I thought this was odd and tried to re-add the booking.

    The result? A message appeared “A booking cannot be added when all flights have been flown”! I knew something was seriously wrong then.

    What happened ? The operating airline of said flight reported to the my frequent flyer airline that I was NOT on the flight, which led to the rest of the ticket being cancelled.

    Lessons for the future:
    1) Code share flights and seat changes – try and verify that seat changes are confirmed with the operating airline.
    2) Think twice before using mobile (paperless) tickets. Had I had a paper ticket printed during transit, the operating airline would not be in a position to claim – apparantly on multiple occassions – that I was not on the flight.

    I eventually made it back to London, but not thanks to any assistance of either airlines’ call centres (and frequent flyer status made absolutely no difference).

    Trust and loyalty ? Too soon for me to decide on this at present.

  29. @tommyleo Sorry but when they change the airport gate at the last minute and do not announce the change in French of a flight that is going to freakin Paris? When they don’t check the boarding pass properly? When they have two people with the same seat assignment and they don’t bother to check that? The flight that they had moved from that gate is going to a foreign country where English is not the national language. They had every reason to know there may be non-english speakers on the flight and should have been on the lookout for such things. It is embarrassing how incompetent the United staff showed themselves to be.

  30. With all the hours they added to her flight for the trip back I wonder if they upgraded her so she at least had extra leg room. Newark- paris in economy is one thing. SFO to Paris is another story.

  31. @Yarong76. I have always been afraid of a situation like that. That is why I always print my full itinerary and as many boarding passes as possible.

  32. I would like to suggest that everyone who comments on these blogs (Gary’s and others…as one comments section can be just like another) be required to post their age. I believe there would be some very interesting statistical commentary discerned on who are sympathetic, and those who are too quick to pass judgement and shame on their fellow man. Hint: my money is that millennial make up the vast majority of the impatient, condescending little pri&*s on these sites. Just sayin’

  33. I have had a significant number of flights where the gate area signage is so packed with connection cities and codeshare information that it wasn’t obvious which flight was being boarded.

    And United is one of the worst at this (along with Delta). I’m sure the board showed San Francisco, but it probably also showed Shanghai and a Lufthansa flight number.

    And none of that takes into account that Paris was probably the next flight up, with the board scrolling through that info too.

    It’s sometimes not that easy.

  34. This traveler and her supporters need to get a grip. She got on the wrong plane. Accidents happen. No one died. Laugh it off and move along.

    Nooooo… We have to make a big production out of it! Heads should roll! Blah blah blah terrorists… Blah blah blah listen to *my* flying story, too.

    Does anyone do anything but B*tch anymore?

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