United Airlines Denies Boarding, Keeps Passenger’s Money Over Basic Economy Check-In Ban

United Airlines denied boarding to a passenger and wouldn’t provide a refund – because they were traveling on a basic economy ticket and weren’t checking a bag.

The self-identified opera singer slash pole dancer writes,

@united screwed my whole trip to key west for my friend’s birthday weekend and they refuse to make it right, refund, or credit me, when i arrived over an hour early with just a few bathing suits and a book

She showed up at the airport with plenty of time to make it through security and to the gate, and just assumed she’d check in electronically. United wouldn’t let her because she didn’t check a bag. So she had to wait in line for the kiosk, but the line was too long and by the time she made it to the front she was inside the check-in cutoff time. They wouldn’t even let her check in and run to the gate at this point – she was just turned away.

And since she didn’t make the flight, United cancelled her ticket – including leaving her without a return trip – and since she was deemed a no show, rather than a denied boarding, she doesn’t get her money back.

Ultimately, she bought a ticket on American Airlines and her duffel bag fit just fine under her seat and as you’ll see in the video she ultimately made it to Key West, Florida after a ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ experience.

United Airlines has a punitive policy to make its cheapest tickets extra miserable, so that you won’t buy them. But customers often don’t realize the policy. United provides less value to customers traveling on their cheapest tickets than American and Delta do.

  • United passengers are not allowed to bring a full-sized carry on (the kind that requires use of the overhead bin) when traveling on a basic economy fare. Neither American nor Delta have this restriction.

  • Even worse, United requires basic economy passengers to check in in-person at the airport if they aren’t checking a bag. No basic economy passenger can check in online or with United’s mobile app and skip the airport counter. Either they have to (pay to) check a bag, or they have to wait in line for check-in, which lets the airline verify that they don’t have a bag that would require overhead bin space.

Now, it appears to me that this woman is carrying both a purse and a duffel bag. That’s two personal items when she’d technically only be allowed one on her United fare. But that also doesn’t seem to be what United’s issue with her was – and her purse might even stuff into the duffel bag (she also says she offered to leave behind the duffel bag, after taking out a single bikini).

United Airlines basic economy passengers carry a ‘Scarlet B’ with the intentionally degraded experience of not being allowed digital check-in. They have to show up at the airport earlier, risk the vagaries of long lines, for the embarrassing experience of presenting themselves as a lowest-fare passenger to employees.

Only these restrictions aren’t always well-understood, as in this case, and so a passenger is out cash because airport lines were too long and they hadn’t planned extra time to account for the issue.

The Department of Transportation has new fee-disclosure rules, ostensibly to help passengers, but this isn’t one of the airline policies that DOT has deigned to require airlines to disclose up front – so contra the agency’s claim, passengers still have to search airline policies to understand what they’re buying.

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. This is disgraceful treatment of an innocent passenger .

    Gary … what is a “single bikini” ? top or bottom ? Both parts would not be “single” , no ?

  2. Take United to small claims court for inadequate customer service that did not allow for their onerous check in policy. They can staff to the level required for their absurd policy or pay up.
    It happened to me a year ago but I noticed the BS when I tried to print boarding passes. I gave the gate agent a ton of crap for pissing off this 1mm+ 55 year frequent flier. I no longer fly my “hometown airline”

  3. I occasionally purchase United B/E tickets and have always been able to check in either online or on the app. I don’t know if this is because:
    I pay for a reserved seat, and/or
    I have the United Explorer CC

  4. @paul:

    You gave an overworked Gate Agent a “ton of crap” for something that isn’t his/her fault, and isn’t within his/her control? You probably felt better after unloading on him/her. He/she probably felt worse, and may have taken it out on another hapless passenger.

    What did this accomplish? Did you get a useless and meaningless “apology”? If so, I bet that really helped.

    Or, did you take it up with United management, where something might be done if enough people like yourself complain where it might do some good? Or buy 100 shares of UAL, and go to the shareholder meeting and complain to those who can actually do something.

    But yelling at a line GA for something they didn’t do and can’t change is simply wrong.

  5. Ha, @Alert always quick with the critical thinking.

    I don’t know all the circumstances of this particular situation so hard to comment and judge, although always sorry to hear when someone doesn’t have a pleasant travel experience. I will say having flown UA, AA, and DL basic economics they warn you multiple times of the rules, almost annoyingly so.

    Generally speaking I’ve done a lot of basic economy on my solo leisurely travels with just my Dora the Explorer (figuratively speaking) backpack and it works great for me. I usually buy a seat at some point since I like the aisle but it still comes out cheaper than Economy.

    UA does seem the worst on paper given you have to check in at the airport and board last. Knock on wood never have had to wait in like, the self kiosks have always been open for me.

    AA you aren’t the last to board, but that hasn’t been affecting me because I like to spend as little time on the plane anyway so I board amongst the last group anyway.

    I don’t fly Delta basic economy now because they get me psychologically with the not earning miles thing even though I don’t fly them enough for it to matter. So only economy or higher with them.

  6. I watched the full video on Instagram. Warning, it contains the F word. Moving on, it seems like the denial of boarding was shockingly in accordance with the stipulations of Basic Economy on United.

    The only thing for which I can “objectively” fault UA is the ticket agent who said “there are no more flights” and just walked away. That’s lousy and unacceptable customer service that has nothing to do with Basic Economy. It’s just the ticketing staff that needs training on customer service – you never leave them hanging. Even tell the customer the ticketing counter has exhausted its booking options and recommend the customer book a new flight online or on the United app – that gives proper closure to a customer service interaction. Walking away is never acceptable unless a customer is abusive. The woman in the video says she was thoroughly calm.

    Secondarily, we can “objectively” fault, or more accurately, assign responsibility to the passenger for:
    1) Bringing 2 items. Doesn’t matter the size; the “personal item” is limited to 1. The second thing becomes a “carry on” which Basic Economy does not allow.
    2) Arriving too late. The check-in cut off times are based on the time you present yourself to the front of the line. If you have to check in at the airport, you really should arrive at least 2 hours before your flight departure time. I have waited 15 minutes in the priority line with nobody ahead of me (and one agent processing one passenger already at the counter).

    The biggest overarching problem is UA’s lack of customer centricity. Basic Economy should not be sold in the way UA does with punitive restrictions that would fluster even frequent travelers. Tell a UA 1K thirty years ago that you can buy a UA ticket that doesn’t allow you to bring a carry on bag and they would find it unimaginable. That’s what customer non-centricity means. It’s one thing to say “our airline, our rules” and hold passengers to account, but the reality is air travel is stressful as is, many people’s tickets are paid for by others and the rules become obscured. I can’t believe Basic Economy is one area in which AA actually has the upper hand over UA in customer centricity.

    Steve Jobs once said Apple doesn’t sell junk. Everything Apple sells is a quality product they would be proud to give as gifts to their family and friends. A legacy airline should operate the same way – even the cheapest fare should retain enough dignity and common sense that a video like this one doesn’t happen.

    And, Gary,

    the embarrassing experience of presenting themselves as a lowest-fare passenger to employees

    What embarrassment? The lowest fares aren’t wealth or income restricted. Billionaires can fly basic economy.

    I once presented myself to the Star Alliance lounge in Brussels with a UA economy ticket. I was UA 1K/Star Alliance Gold which should have allowed me entry. The receptionist sneered that I was flying economy. I said do they take Star Alliance Gold? She said they did before United canceled the contract. Later I found out that lounge accepts Priority Pass despite not being listed on the Priority Pass app or website.

  7. This statement isn’t quite correct: “No basic economy passenger can check in online or with United’s mobile app and skip the airport counter.” United does allow passengers entitled to a full size carry on while traveling on a basic economy ticket (elite members and certain credit card holders) to check in online.

  8. It seems like a very silly and purely vindictive policy to not allow the lowest cost method of checkin…the app…on the lowest priced tickets.

  9. Where did this person wait in line for a kiosk? I haven’t see lines to use kiosks in years, especially since UA went to the open lobby two step model with the floating kiosks and separate bag drop. Maybe you wait behind a person or two, but there’s hardly lines. The check-in cut off time is 30-45min before departure if you’re travelling without bags depending on the airport so something isn’t adding up here.

  10. Thank you for combining the job titles of “opera singer” and “pole dancer” in the same sentence. I’ll let other commentators add to the rest of her story.

  11. I think it is ok for people who don’t (can’t) use overhead bin space to board last. Why would the passenger care? Southwest also requires you to go to the lobby desk to check in if you have a pet, so they can verify it will fit under the seat prior to boarding. It is not to humilate the passenger, but to allow orderly boarding when the time comes. I don’t see United being in the wrong here….although I sure wouldn’t fly them, but that goes back to them placing me in a broken business class seat across the US/Atlantic (stuck in full recline mode) and only being given an option of missing my flight and taking one 2 days later or flying econ – no refund nor compensation. . Never again. And I mean never again (!) will I ever fly United.

  12. I just checked and this is all it says on UA when I went to book a basic economy ticket as warnings (nothing about no online check in or requiring a bag check prior to going to gate in fact it says if you check a bag at the gate it adds a $25 fee to the checked bag fee). I also clicked through to the full fare restrictions and it actually doesn’t say anything about having to check in at desk versus online but here is the HUGE warning info they put right before you buy it, so I am calling BS re something here either UA or passenger:

    IN BOLD:
    “No complimentary seat selection
    Advance seat assignments may be available for purchase during booking and up until check-in opens
    Complimentary seat assigned prior to boarding
    No group or family seating
    No Premier® member seating benefits

    No full-sized carry-on bag on board
    Check bags before airport security for the applicable fee
    Bags brought to the gate incur an additional $25 gate handling charge

    *If you’re traveling with a child under 12, we have new tools that make it easier for them to sit next to a family member for free.
    **This restriction does not apply to MileagePlus Premier members, primary cardmembers of qualifying MileagePlus credit cards or Star Alliance™ Gold members.”

  13. Remember to take an empty cardboard box to pay for as checked luggage so you can board the airplane with United. This is a perfect example of why I dislike United and don’t fly them any more. I do fly JetBlue on basic economy if it makes sense. If I do, I check a bag. I have never had a problem. Of course, with JetBlue and a checked bag at LAX, BUF and MIA. There are plenty of kiosks for quick checking and there are enough personnel so there isn’t a long wait for checking in requiring a counter agent. The two bags is a canard since the purse will obviously fit in the duffel bag.

  14. (On topic) United’s basic economy is the most punitive, but it’s also the most bust-able with one of their credit cards, since they let you pay for a seat. I’ll book their basic economy plus a seat fee, but if I didn’t have their credit card, I’d pick regular economy on another airline, which is usually a little cheaper for the routes I fly.

    (Only vaguely on topic) I love when my worlds collide. I used to perform with this singer; I’m a pianist and she would do aerial spinning while singing Handel arias. She’s fantastic.

  15. For an extremely premium, thoughtful, and inclusive travel experience, please choose Delta.

  16. Based on the facts described, and not guesses as to what might actually have gone on, it seems to me as if United is simply trying to squeeze every penny out of passengers and reduce every penny of cost. End finish. I don’t think that they want to humiliate or “degrade” Basic Economy passengers. Face it; if you fly any sort of economy fare, United makes very little on you. The real money is in the Business Class/First Class fares.

  17. Cut off for checking in is a minimum of 45 minutes before departure. She says she got there just over an hour before departure. Does that mean she parked an hour before departure, or does it mean she was standing in front of an agent an hour before?

    There’s a reason we tell.you to get to the airport 90 minutes to two hours before departure. This one doesn’t pass the smell test. I’m guessing she got to the airport at one hour, one minute before departure, counting on just hustling in and quick checking in. The gamble didn’t pay off. That’s on her.

  18. United did nothing wrong here. She obviously didn’t read the rules. Moreover, she didn’t buy a basic economy ticket on American. She bought a last-minute fare which allowed her certain baggage privileges. United offers the same exact experience had she purchased a last minute ticket on United. This woman has nothing to complain about. It’s disgraceful the way she is blaming an airline for her own air. Next time know what you buy, or else take the bus.

  19. The airlines have a monopoly over our travel and of screwing us. Need harsher laws against them.

  20. “Arrived to the airport with plenty of time….but the lines were too long”
    Gimme a break, she messed up.
    Basic economy is like putting quarters in a parking meter with a 1 hour limit for a doctors appointment.

  21. Wow, way to go UA ! Pathetic.. and to think I once worked for UA..well Continental really before that.. Continental would have NEVER done this kind of foolishness. Hope this gal stays with AA from now on and never books another UA flight.

  22. Maybe if this young lady spent more time reading how basic economy works instead of wasting her time getting a nose ring she would not be in this position. lesson learned, spend the extra money for an economy ticket, it cost less than a nose earing.

  23. Passenger’s fault for not following the rules of the fare they purchased. United makes these policies clear but if someone chooses to ignore these rules, it’s their fault. I’m not a big fan of United, but in this case, they are right. People should buy the product they need, not buy something that does not deliver what they need then complain about it after the fact.

  24. I’m no fan of BE, but I have known people to say when I want to get to the airport on the early side that old saw “if you’ve never missed a flight, you are spending too much time in airports.” But those are often the people who miss flights because they cut it too close, yet they still complain.

  25. Same thing happened to a friend flying on Easyjet in Lisbon Portugal. She arrived in plenty of time however only one kiosk was open with a huge line, she got to the terminal on time, over the flight was over booked and she was denied boarding with no refund. Unbelievable this happens.

  26. From experience on JetBlue with a basic economy ticket requiring boarding last, I have waited to the very last minute to board with no one in the jetway behind me. No need to crowd onto the airplane until all but a very few have been seated. Not having a carry on is great in certain circumstances. Of course, when I got to my seat, I had to get the aisle and middle seat passengers to unbuckle and get out to let me in. No looking for overhead bin space was a plus.

  27. She missed her flight, plain and simple. If she wasn’t at the airport early enough to wait in line and check-in before the cutoff, that’s not the airline’s fault.

  28. I propose a new DOT rule. Whenever you arrive at an airport, you press a single button to be given a time-stamped queue number from any kiosk placed at every entrance. If the stamped number is an hour before your flight, the airline has to take you regardless of their queue length which may later delay you. It ought to be the airline’s responsibility to check in customers in time, not the customers’ responsibility to predict the airline’s performance at this ahead of time.

  29. I still can’t get over forcing a passenger to check in with an agent vs checking in online .

  30. I haven’t quite tried this yet but its on my list. Do you have to check in the at the airport you are actually departing from to get your boarding passes on a United Basic Economy ticket?

    Let me explain, I live in South Bend, IN. United flies to Chicago-O’Hare from there, it is also the train station for the South Shore Line, our Regional Rail train to Chicago (just under a two hour ride as of this week after a major track expansion project to Downtown Chicago, then a 45 minute Blue Line ‘L’ ride out O’Hare, cost is just $17.25 one-way). If I have a Basic Economy ticket out of O’Hare could I check in in South Bend at the ticket counter (generally no line) for my flight out of O’Hare and not have to deal with the kiosks at O’Hare? (Can’t find anything in United’s Terms & Conditions).
    For a Basic Economy flight out of Newark once, I was at New York-Penn Station during the day when there was an in station ticket office still (I assume it’s gone) with a flight out that evening and tried to stop by, they had just closed for lunch so I didn’t get to test this method.

  31. I flew United to/from Portland (OR) and Houston basic economy two trips recently, 1 personal item ONLY with size restriction. When checking in BEFORE the trip the app was clear… NO BOARDING PASS, I had to check in at a kiosk. NO PROBLEM at the kiosk (which is dedicated to basic economy only, no competition with the higher paying herd) where a nice attendant checked my personal item, swiped her ID card in the kiosk, and amazingly my boarding pass appeared on my app (and a polite offer for a paper one if I desired). Return about the same. Next trip the boarding pass magically showed on my app when I checked in. (best guess is my wife had a future trip booked WITH a carry on and that confused the computer). No issues but CRAMPED seating (I am a 19″ neck wide body 270 lbs), but hey I did not desire to pay the exorbitant first class rate, or take the 3 1/2 days in leg room luxury (IMHO) on Amtrak.

  32. @Highclassprofessional

    “There are no more flights to EYW”!
    No, you wanted the ctr agent to tap on the keyboard for 5 minutes, pick-up the phone to call for assistance in finding that not existing flight.

  33. @subway nut – no you must checkin at the gateway airport where the flight begins – the idea is to monitor the carryon at the tkt ctr rather then at the gate. You can not monitor the bag issue online or some 3rd airport location. She could easily have 5 carryons in south bend – or pick them up after that remote checkin.

  34. @phillip p bowers

    EWR is a major hub that supported CO route network. I’d say the mix of employees there is 90% legacy CO.

    Either way, glad you no longer work for the company, your intolerance to co-workers is not a good look.

  35. I don’t know why people are blaming the passenger for “not knowing the rules” when this rule isn’t published. I fly United all the time and I book people on various airlines all the time and I had zero idea United forces you to check in in person if you’re not entitled to a checked bag and aren’t checking a bag.

    Not only don’t I know that, it is the exact opposite of what I would expect: The whole point of not checking a bag is so you don’t have to wait to check a bag.

    Also also, I don’t understand why people are doubting there was a line “for the kiosk”. This passenger WAS NOT ALLOWED to use the kiosk – she had to wait in line for an agent.

    United screwed this passenger, period. She got the the airport with plenty of time to get throgub security, and once she was there, United refused to let her check in unless she talked to an agent, and then ALSO did not have enough agents to serve the customer within 30 minutes. (Checkin cutoff with no bags is 30 minutes, not 45 minutes)

    Passenger tried to check in on time, United refused to let the passenger check in, that’s on United.

    I would file and IDB claim. United refused travel on a paid ticket when the passenger checked in on time… United refusing to process the checkin is not the same as the passenger not checking in.

  36. Remember the old poster about United “Fly the friendly skies” with a Japanese Zero pilot grinning at you?

    Doesn’t seem United has changed much over the years at all…

  37. The woman arrived at the airport without adequate time, and missed her flight. This is not UA’s problem. It would be UA’s fault if she had arrived at the airport as early as the airline recommends, and STILL missed her flight because of long check-in lines. As someone who always buys a more expensive ticket, I’m glad UA polices this — better to do it at check-in than slow down boarding with all the folks who need to pay to gate check. Basic Economy is meant to compete with Spirit and Frontier, so at the risk of sounding like an elitist butthole, this is supposed to be a painful experience, right?

  38. I have had a united millage plus credit card for probably 20 years and put a fair amount on each month. It’s stories like this that make me think about using up my miles and just getting a cash back card. I really think the airline industry and corporate America as a whole have lost their minds trying to extract the last penny to raise stock price

  39. I’m not a shill for UA and I think their Basic Economy fares are a travesty. Very restrictive and punitive. Which is why I never ever consider them. That said, this woman doesn’t seem very bright. The rules are perfectly clear and laid out to you when you book the ticket. And UA sends you reminder emails too. Yet Cyndi Lauper, Jr there decided not to bother with any of that and now expects special treatment. She did this to herself.

  40. So for “united basic economy”, if you are late you forfeit your ticket and money you paid? Really? That doesn’t sound right as one can be late to the airport for a million legit reasons?

  41. I’m with Philip. I was part of the Continental family then United pac-manned them. Overall, the flying public and the airlines are a bad marriage–sigh.

  42. @Andy11235: Incorrect. The woman arrived with adequate time, and then United made up an unpublished rule and refused to let her check in. They refused to let her check in even though she was at the counter talking to an agent at least 30 minutes prior to departure and was not checking any bags. That is 100% an IDB.

    @AngryFlier: You are wrong. The rule that you can not check in online if you have not purchased a checked bag is ABSOLUTELY NOT AT ALL published by United at any point in the process of buying a Basic Economy ticket. Even if you expand the terms and conditions and read the fine print before clicking Buy Now, it’s not there either. Even if you click the Fare Rules link…. It’s a broken link and you get an error page. If you click the Contract of Carriage link… you guessed it, not there either.

    In fact, United tells you the opposite: That you can go to the gate WITHOUT checking a bag as long as you pay an extra $25 to check it at the gate.

    This passenger did NOTHING wrong.

  43. @ Chris Raehl
    May want to reread United’s site…. Below is a copy/paste from united.com

    Checking bags
    You can start check in through our website or app. Bring your bags to the airport to confirm weight and size.

    Carrying a personal item only
    If you’re not checking a bag, you need to check in at the airport. We’ll confirm your personal item meets size and height requirements at the airport.

    Boarding group
    You’ll board in Group 6 unless an exception applies.

  44. Getting sick of these airlines and them finding ways to mistreat customers at every step. There should be laws to reign them in.

  45. Original poster here! Getting such a kick out of people judging my occupation and nose ring LOL. Cyndi lauper jr also a choice fave To clarify, i got email and text prompts to check in online, which i followed like i do with any airline, filled out, and then in the end it said “you are not checked in online” since i didn’t check a bag. Nowhere did I see when I booked my ticket that this was not an option, on top of getting email prompts saying “time to check in” as usual, so I kept trying to do just that. The kiosks at my terminal in Newark were slammed. When i re-booked on American, there were united kiosks in that terminal (i believe united flies out of two terminals there) with absolutely no line at all. As i mentioned, i didn’t cause a fuss, i just solved the problem. I get that you are supposed to give yourself 2 or 3 hours, but even international, i have found myself sitting there without a way to even check in that early, sitting outside air tap for example for hours with no one at the desk, so i admittedly don’t tend to be overly early. My goal when not checking a bag is to always just check in online and walk to security-otherwise i would always check a bag.

  46. @Scott L – it’s legit reason that long lines prevented an ontime check-in. This happened to me on New Year’s Eve with United. I arrived 75 minutes ahead of time for a domestic flight and had to check luggage. United was the only airline so short staffed that they had queue stretched out to the terminal entry. They stopped check-in for many flights and told impacted people to rebook themselves via phone. And yes there was an express bag drop at this airport. This is the scenario where I want to see automated bag checks where your ID and bags are scanned without human contact.

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