United Airlines Gave Out $100,000 Downgrading Passengers On One Hawaii Flight This Weekend

United flight 363 from Newark to Honolulu was supposed to be operated by a Boeing 777 on Saturday. The airline swapped the plane for a Boeing 767-300, and that meant fewer business class seats. The airline needed ten volunteers who were willing to downgrade.

United Airlines Polaris Business Class

Fortunately those passengers didn’t even need to go back to coach seats. While United doesn’t sell its premium economy cabin on the route, the plane they used offered a ‘Premium Plus’ cabin. That meant economy plus was like domestic first class with foot rests. Downgrading passengers wouldn’t have to suffer the 11 hour 22 minute flight in coach seats.

These ten passengers each received $10,000 in travel voucher compensation for volunteering, or $100,000 total for the one flight. And despite the last minute jockeying, the flight still operated on time.

This isn’t the first time United gave one passenger $10,000 although I’m not aware of a time a whole group of passengers received that much compensation (though it has happened on American).

United confirms Saturday’s aircraft swap on flight 363 but says they “don’t have anything further to share” preferring not to comment on their own generosity – presumably afraid doing so might actually burnish their reputation. The downgrade of 10 passengers from business to premium plus in exchange for $10,000 in vouchers apiece was confirmed by another passenger on the flight.

There’s one thing about the story that I’m not following though. United frequently operates the route with a Boeing 777-200 that has 50 business class seats. Only one version of the United 767-300ER has premium economy seats and that plane also has 46 business class seats. Unless they were at one point going to operate a Boeing 777-300ER on the route (with 60 business class seats) – something I personally haven’t seen them do – I’m not sure why they’d have been oversold in business by 10 seats as a result of this downgrade.

Update: After I wrote this United reconsidered and got back in touch. Despite multiple passenger reports of 10 passengers being downgraded into premium economy seats, United says it was 5 passengers – and then corrected themselves to confirm that it was 9 passengers. They offered,

Occasionally we have to change aircraft at the last minute and when that happens, we try to make the impact to customers as minimal as possible.

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. The day after Christmas our ORD-OGG flight was delayed 7 hours and aircraft was swapped from a 777 Hawai’i config to an international config (had to wait for the plane to land from Munich). They needed 22 people to rebook and started bidding at $4,000 each. Ended up being $10,000 to get the full 22 to volunteer.

  2. Yeah, but how many of those passengers will ever spend the $10K for flights before the vouchers expire?

  3. Vouchers have a lot of breakage, so this may well cost United much less.

    Also, my guess as to one factor in why 10 were downgraded would be that the swap necessitated bringing extra crew that were must ride dead heads. 10 hours is minimum 3 crew, borderline 4.

  4. I think the odd thing is matching the last bid for all bidders. I bet the first 2 would have cost no more than $2-$3k if the bidding was not pressured.

    So which airlines say they will match last sest’s bid?

  5. At least one airline has taken the entire bid process online, and essentially dark, to avoid the need to top bid match.

  6. Good for United – everyone walked away from this happy.
    United got their irregular operations plane swap.
    I don’t see any customers complaining on the net or trying to sue United.

    If this is what it takes to keep people happy today then so be it – this is part of the cost of their business that needs to be planned for.
    United obviously needs to manage their business to minimize these incidents – but no crazy customers trying to sue them, no nasty videos of stupid “security” people removing people from planes.

    Good for United.

  7. The non-stop united flight from sfo-del got diverted to Mumbai due to bad weather last week and everyone got $200 certificate plus hotel and connecting flight to different booked destinations

  8. Is the EWR-HNL a typical 2-4-2 Hawaii business class configuration? If so, these people came out wildly ahead.

    Even if it was 2-2-2 they weren’t giving up an actual Polaris seat…

  9. This swap scenario in this article isn’t correct. The flight was originally scheduled to be operated by a 764, but was downgraded to the 30J, two-cabin 763. The pax didn’t soft land into UPP, but rather standard economy.

  10. Sounds like a lot, but it is not $10k. It isn’t specifically a bad deal as it could end up being ten east coast/west coast trips. Sometimes, it is necessary to change planes. I would venture to say at most, the passengers paid $2500-3000 to sit up front. The gate agents have the discretion to offer this level of compensation. With that many people kicked backwards, they didn’t want any complaints. Plus, there are accounting procedures in place for unforeseen circumstances. So, it didn’t cost them a thing. Also, the ones who didn’t ride in first, will be riding in first on their return flight. If you areca frequent flier, it is very easy to burn $10k in no time. If the travelers don’t ever use the vouchers hooray for the airline.

  11. There are many 777-300 frames sitting around now with all of the Asian cancelled flights. The 777-200HD versions don’t have the range do they for EWR or IAD to HNL? That is why they use 767.

    So, that leaves for options 777-300 downgrade to 777-200LR or 767?

  12. YES, the last sentence is truncated. Author Gary Leff, can you please add the remainder of the article? Then ask your editor to resign lol

  13. Gary – This route is ALWAYS on 764 not 77G/77M, 77G/77M dont even have the range to fly the distance to begin with since they are non ER, only 764 and 763 can perform. The furthest 77G/77M can fly is ORD-HNL, but even that occasionally has weight restrictions too

  14. @William Hipple
    Since the flight went out on time, I’m guessing that the aircraft recalled from asia routes were in other hubs or already assigned to other flights.

    It’s cheaper to offer $10k than it is to delay the entire plane, and then ferry a plane to EWR if it wasn’t already there.

  15. Wow, so instead of potentially cancelling this flight altogether for a mechanical issue with the original bird, UAL found another plane & avoided a disaster, overly compensated 9 inconvenienced customers AND got the flight out ON-TIME!

    Southwürst wouldn’t have performed this miracle.

    Great job UAL!!

  16. A few years ago I had booked a “once in a lifetime” lie flat 1st class from DEN-HNL as a gift to my Mother in Law, as she’d never flown first class, much less lie flat seats. She was traveling from IND-DEN, and I was traveling FAR-DEN, then we were meeting up for the “lie flat seat flight” from DEN-HNL. Imagine my dismay when United had a mech issue on her connecting flight from IND-DEN, so they not only tried to downgrade her to economy on a later flight, then when I insisted, they flew her on American from IND-ORD, then booked her in 1st from ORD-LAX-HNL, but not before trying to get me to change my routing. I ended up staying on our original flight DEN-HNL, and met up with her in HNL. The original route that was to be lie flat from DEN-HNL had an aircraft swap; ended up with a footrest instead of lie flat seats. For all this crazy inconvenience they gave my mother in law a $75 voucher, and nothing to me for the aircraft swap. BTW this was before the David Dao incident, so United didn’t really care. I haven’t flown them since. We flew back from HNL-MSP on Delta in their Delta one lie flats–what a difference. 🙂

  17. December 26th – EWR to HNL same thing happened. At least 12 people received $8,000 each including my wife and I.

  18. With extra aircraft due to the China suspensions, the EWR-HNL route has been frequently upgauged to a internationally-configured 777-200 with 50 business class and 226 economy seats. It was never scheduled to be a high-density 777 with 28 business/336 economy.

  19. As others have mentioned, UA363 EWR-HNL is always a 767-400. With the China suspensions there are extra 777-200s and so for 9 days starting Feb. 13, the usual 764 was upgauged to a 772, usually swapped within the 24 hours prior to departure. On the day in question it was never swapped to a 772 – it went directly from a 764 to 763 (39 Polaris First seats to 30). There’s your 9 downgrades.

  20. Does anyone know when they offer the travel vouchers (for these higher multi-thousand $ amounts) if:

    a) they allow for travel beyond the standard 12 validity date? If not, then you might be stuck booking higher priced (business class) tickets when you wouldn’t ordinarily do so.

    b) can break up the application of their value over multiple/different purchases? I have only gotten ones for a few hundred dollars in the past and I thought it had to be used up on a single purchase without any carryover of remaining balance (e.g. the flight cost can’t be less than than the voucher). Though I could be wrong on that. Thanks.

  21. So First Class on United can range as high as $5,000 for the round trip from NY to HI. If I paid $5,000 to sit in First Class and they asked me to sit in the back of the bus, four things spring to mind. One, I would be pissed. Two, they better refund my ticket difference, which is at least $4,500. Three, they better also compensate me for the inconvenience, and finally four, if you’re buying First Class tickets on United, you’ve probably bought more than one, you’ve probably paid a lot for your other tickets, you are probably at the high end of the frequent flyer program. $10,000 for the inconvenience isn’t out of the ordinary. The difference is the number of people who were inconvenienced because they switched air frames. Which also meant the airlines saved a bunch so they had a bunch to refund. Some international United Polaris flights are $10,000 themselves. Whatever you are trying to prove or say from this article is nonsense. This is simple economics. You are picking a fight with the airlines for the sake of picking a fight with the airlines and trying to say something about “Class” inequality. Dumb article.

  22. Eight days before Dr. Dao was dragged off the plane in 2017, there was the incident with Geoff Fearns. He paid $1,000.00 to fly home a day early — in First Class. They allowed him to board, and he even got a complimentary beverage. Then a GA comes in a tells him he needs to deboard. When he says he’s already seated she threatened to have him escorted off the plane in handcuffs. She also rudely said, “We have a priority list and you’re at the bottom!” He wrote a letter of complaint to UA and they replied with a, “we’re sorry you had a bad experience” (or some similar boilerplate corporate speak).

    It’s too bad it took a broken nose, two missing teeth and a severe concussion for United to treat their passengers with dignity.

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