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 article is puzzling. I flew United Basic Economy twice the last six month. One trip was just last week. I was able to check in on the app both times. For Basic Economy, you are allowed one personal item, 9x10x17, according to there website. I would think she could have stuffed her purse into her duffle bag?

  2. I don’t know how clear that bag check rule is for BE, but it seems to me most times UA starts boarding 30-45 minutes before the departure time, so arriving at the airport 75 minutes before stated departure time is cutting it too close in my view. And this is what happens sometimes when you cut it too close.

  3. i understand what UA is doing…..they are taking their service level down to the Spirit/Frontier level….i get it. But does it really win friends for UA with all this micro managing of the “personal” item. I hope the C Suite boys and girls are continually reviewing this policy and making certain it is in their interest to be so pickey.

  4. I like @Aaron’s approach but I would implement it differently:

    You open the airline’s app on your phone, you click a “I’m ready to check in”, it’s only allowed when your location is within the airport. This both gives a timestamp of when you arrived but also means the airline knows there’s a passenger at the counter for a particular flight so they can take people out of order if need be. Airlines must publish cutoffs in terms of entered the line, not actually checked in–the passenger is not responsible for **airline** delays.

    And put the same sort of tracking on the security line.

  5. I’m on the gal’s side here: Unless it was spelled out during the purchase process that she had to be checked in physically if she wasn’t checking in a bag online then she is entitled to a refund or rebook just like full economy fares who wind up getting bumped because the line was too long at check-in.

    That said, this manner of carry-on baggage compliance is unnecessary and cruel: Simply require Basic Economy to board last and the gate agents can make them pay for the carry on accordingly at the time of boarding. Warn them at online check-in that they will be assessed a fee if they try to bring a carry-on on board. Done.

    Some executive came up with this policy who didn’t consider the consequences of this policy. This is why I wish we had Japanese CEO’s: They actually use their own products to experience what the customer goes through.

  6. I fly United basic economy all the time and I am always able to check-in on the United app 24 hours before the flight and get a digital boarding pass.

  7. Another way around this is to have a United credit card. It allows one free checked bag when you’ve paid for the flight with the credit card.

  8. I have flown UA frequently and have not experienced any check-in problems and I do not check baggage. I did experience the theft of my overhead stored bag on American Airlines. AA’s response was that they are not responsible for the security of their passengers. The DOT and FAA need to publish the legal standards for which airlines are responsible and DOT needs to implement fines when airlines do not meet the legal standards.

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