OH, SNAP: Wedding Couple Says Law Enforcement Removed Them From United Flight This Weekend

United just said they wouldn’t have law enforcement take passengers off flights anymore.

Except — as I called it yesterday — they more or less had their fingers crossed. They said this applied “unless it is a matter of safety and security” And though understandable, I noted that this exception “renders the policy statement meaningless.”

United’s new promise lasted until yesterday when a bride and groom enroute to their Costa Rica wedding were booted from a Houston – Liberia, Costa Rica flight for ‘self-upgrading’ to empty economy plus extra legroom seats.

Having flown from Salt Lake City to Houston on United, Amber Maxwell and Michael Hohl boarded their connecting flight UA 1737 and say that “a man was lying — asleep — across their assigned seats” so they figured no big deal, they’d just grab a couple of seats three rows ahead. The flight wasn’t close to full, so it didn’t make much difference.

“We thought not a big deal, it’s not like we are trying to jump up into a first-class seat,” Hohl told the station. “We were simply in an economy row a few rows above our economy seat.”

That’s their story, anyway. United tells a different one.

They were assigned seats 24 B and C, and moved to 21 B and C — an exit row. They hadn’t paid for the exit seats so they were instructed to go back to their assigned seats “which they did after asking for an upgrade and being told no.”

They’re headed to their wedding and everyone knows if you’re getting married you should ask to be upgraded, right? While I’ve certainly gotten an upgrade I didn’t deserve the wedding bit is one of the sure ways to look like an idiot trying to score a seat up front.

Although they say they returned to their seats (the ones they claim were being occupied by another – sleeping – passenger),

After sitting, Hohl said a flight attendant approached and asked if they were in their ticketed seats. The couple explained they weren’t and asked if they could get an upgrade, but instead were told they needed to return to their assigned seats.

Hohl said after complying with the flight attendant’s demand, a U.S. Marshall came onto the plane and asked them to get off.

They say they complied because they were afraid of what happened to Dr. Dao last Sunday.

“They said that we were being disorderly and a hazard to the rest of the flight, to the safety of the other customers,” said Hohl.

United Airlines claims they actually tried to sit in an upgraded seat “repeatedly” and they “wouldn’t follow crew instructions.”

They were rebooked for a flight this morning, and the delay doesn’t throw too big a wrench into their plans because they’re not getting married until Thursday.

United explains,

“These passengers repeatedly attempted to sit in upgraded seating which they did not purchase and they would not follow crew instructions to return to their assigned seats,”

Now this is hardly a compelling case to go to war with United over. In the absence of eyewitness statements or video to the contrary I’m willing to accept United’s version of events as plausible.

Update: United now says that the couple was removed by airline staff and not law enforcement.

HoweverIf the wedding couple’s claim is true this seems more like a circumstance United promised not to call law enforcement than one where they say calling law enforcement is needed for safety. They still appear to be treating cops as private security, and customer service problems as potential crimes — even if the passengers may have been foolish.

In fact, it’s precisely that United was willing to rebook them for the morning that suggests to me the airline didn’t perceive a threat to the safety of the aircraft or its passengers and didn’t believe a crime was occurring.

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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  1. I do think there’s a distinction, though, between (a) having already boarded in your proper seat and getting forcibly removed, on the one hand; and (b) assuming UA’s version of the facts as true, repeatedly trying to sit in seats that are not yours and disregarding crew member instructions, on the other. I am shocked at law enforcement’s involvement in the former, but would actually EXPECT it in the latter. Anyone else?

  2. I don’t see what this has to do with the doctor’s case. He was in his ticketed seat that he paid for. These people were allegedly in seats they did not pay for. Not the same thing. I have seen United flight attendants threaten people who sit in these exit row seats when they don’t have a ticket for it. Saw a flight attendant threaten to call the captain because the adult son (who was sitting in his assigned seat) had moved his elderly mother into the exit row next to him after the plane had been fully boarded. When he questioned what the big deal was the flight attendant threatened to call the captain within 20 seconds. The elderly woman didn’t appear to even understand english and didn’t say anything. She moved back to her seat which was the row behind. She shouldn’t have been allowed to sit there, but the whole tone of the conversation was very unprofessional and unnecessarily belligerent. United has a real customer service problem. In this case I am not willing to give United the benefit of the doubt. It would not shock me if some flight attendant decided to go on a power play and just had the people removed because they didn’t like the couple’s response to their order. I find it weird that the couple would keep returning to the seats they had been kicked out of, unless they were intoxicated. Anything is possible but no way do I automatically believe everything United says anymore.

  3. When Economy Plus is empty on the rare flight with few seats filled, wouldn’t United do better to offer those seats to its customers rather than kick them out? I was once on a plane with literally eight passengers on a fifth seater, but the flight attendants insisted that no one sit in the vacant Economy Plus seats. Is the marginal revenue UA may get from people buying those seats on otherwise empty planes really more valuable than the goodwill they would get for allowing “self-upgrades”?

  4. United subscribes to trump alternate reality…say whatever the ignorant, uneducated hillbillies want to hear and continue to do whatever you (united) want to do. If evidence shows otherwise, just deny the evidence.

    It works for trump, so it will probably work for united too.

  5. @davidb, what about the passengers who had paid the extra to sit in economy plus, why should others then get it for free?

  6. Why don’t you give it a rest and give us some real news? You are taking up too much of my twitter for constant bash-united stories. Stop beating a dead horse already.

  7. There might be more to what is going on with United than appears on the surface. This might be a stealth labor dispute here. There is currently a strike by employees that operate United Express flights out of Houston. This event took place in Houston. The Chicago event was on a United Express flight. We haven’t heard of events of this sort concerning United before, all of these seem to be happening very recently. I am curious if this is actually a labor action in support of the striking Mesa employees (nice airline you have there, be a shame if anything happened to it).

  8. This article says “US Marshall”; I thought I had previously read “air marshall”. In any event, not someone I would imagine would have a role in removing a passenger from an airplane?

  9. The problem is that front-line United employees lie as easily as they breathe. It has been that way for decades. And everyone knows it.

    There is absolutely no reservoir of goodwill for them to tap.

  10. @Pault — passengers pay extra to _guarantee_ a seat in economy plus. If there are any left over, it is perfectly fair to give them away. Unless you think hotel suite upgrades are unfair to paying suite guests, rental car upgrades are unfair, etc.

    This is actually all moot because how many people actually pay for economy plus? I thought everyone gets it for free with status. Also many non-status pax without seat reservations are ultimately assigned seats in economy plus because those are the only seats left available.

  11. Yes I agree, stop calling law enforcement for things like this, and please encourage your crew to come up with creative solutions to solve problems and give them the authority to do so, in order to improve customer experience.

    So… there was someone who spread their things in their aisle, so they thought they’d move to another aisle that was more empty.

    Well– all I can say is that on Southwest Airlines, people do that all the time, and move to other empty rows and empty seats. On long international flights on many other airlines, I have seen people move to emptier aisles, esp when they want to lie down in a row. I think now w/United having different fare prices in the same section, it must now become a more touchy subject, esp for the crew, who feel that people should sit in seats they paid for.

    However, let me think of similar situations. Having been to the theater, musicals on broadway, plays, etc, people move all the time to better seats after intermission, or even as soon as the show starts and the theater gets dark. Ushers never seem to mind, as those seats are empty anyway, and would go empty. And they overlook the fact that those seats are more expensive, and they just LET them do it– how nice and what a pleasant upgrade! I think that’s the way most people look at it. Some might even say… why let perfectly good seats go to waste?

    Also, airlines used to do similarly– like complimentary upgrades, etc. Even being asked, ‘would you like to sit here, you might be more comfortable?’ has been a nice question before, showing the FA is considering your comfort and thought of an idea that might be better.

    Again, United is not in a legal profession where you try to be right all the time, it is in a profession that depends on customers. They must keep in mind the customer experience at all times. It is more important that the customer is happy/satisfied and will be a return customer, than it is to be right and have a pissed off customer who will tell others and to lose a few customers along the way.

    In this case, why not– they are going to their wedding (they aren’t lying about it and have a wedding website). Wouldn’t you want everyone to be happy and for them to tell their family/friends how happy they were to be upgraded? Esp if there are open seats. I would be interested in the views of any other passengers who were on the flight, since it is difficult to reconcile the couple’s vs. United’s.

    Remember that exceptional customer service goes a long way. I have helped out in numerous occasions and don’t need to be compensated for it; happy to do it. Most of the time nothing happens, and that is fine; that is the right thing to do. However, I will always remember the crew that expressed a lot of appreciation and grattitude for something I did, it wasn’t really that big even. It was many years ago, but they got me 2 bottles of champagne for me and my travel companion; they must have had extra food from first class, so they brought that as well; and finally in addition to this, they found a way to give me a $200 voucher for a future flight. Again, it was all unnecessary and not required, but I will always remember it and was touched by their thoughtfulness and generosity.

  12. Sounds like somebody wanted free E+. If you want economy plus, pay for economy plus. Otherwise take your ticketed seat. The days where you can expect an upgrade to even economy plus on your wedding/special occaison are long over. You want it, you buy it. If a cop asks you to leave the plane, do it. Expect problems otherwise. Check your entitlement at the curb on the way in to the airport.

  13. @Tom — ironically, whoever accepts my curbside check-in will feel entitled to a tip!

  14. I honestly am so tired of reading Gary’s repeated attempts to report “news” and offers up rarely any useful insight or suggestions.

    Regardless of what actually happened on this flight, what do you think airlines generally should do if a problem such as “self upgraders” presents itself? Clearly, the solution is NOT to allow people to do so just to avoid any customer service challenge. But after you’ve told the passengers that they have to pay or remain in their original seats, and if that request is refused repeatedly, what is left to do? I agree that “safety/security” is too broad a term, but there is a thing such as obeying crew member instructions. In this case, no cops were called, and it seems appropriate to remove the customers from the flight in question so the customer service issue can be dealt with, with the appropriate people, at the gate/inside the terminal, so that the rest of the flight can proceed.

    The fact that they were rebooked to the next day just suggests the customers understood that they cannot behave that way.

    And no, the fact that these were people getting married shouldn’t matter. If the airline chooses to surprise and delight them, great. But they aren’t obliged to. So let’s get over that.

  15. These people were trying to get away with not paying for more expensive seats, and were mad when caught. Just try buying seats in the nosebleed section for a football game, and then pushing your way into one of the boxes ‘because it was empty and I have a right”….. When you book your ticket, you have the option to buy these seats for a price, and this couple did not do that. Now they want us to pretend they didn’t know. Yeah, sure.

  16. Why couldn’t they just communicated with the flight attendants in the first place before deciding that it’s no big deal to change! Silly things like these get people into unnecessary troubles! Let the flight attendants manage the details…

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