United Refused to Let Young Child Nap In The Empty Seats Next to Her

Last week Ann Coulter learned that even when an airline offers you a specific seat and charges for it they don’t actually promise to give you that seat.

As another customer who sued United for being moved from the seat she paid extra for demonstrates, this is not something customers understand. When airlines offer a specific seat for more money, there’s no popup that says “but our fingers are crossed and we may not give it to you” and at most you’ll get a refund for the seat fee if e don’t. Advance seat purchases are really prepaid space available seat purchases.

The flip side of this is that airlines do charge for seats now, a practice that’s developed only in recent years. You used to just be able to move to any empty seat in your cabin (though not self-upgrade to a different cabin). That’s no longer ok on some US airlines.

I took a delay on a United flight out of Denver last month when a passenger wanted to move from one coach seat to another. Flight attendants wouldn’t let him. He said he’d pay. They left the aircraft to check with the gate agent what the buy up fee would be. He refused the $63 upcharge.

As I wrote at the time,

One flight attendant said to another, “When I go to the car lot to buy and buy a Honda I don’t drive off in a Mercedes just because it was there.” She congratulated herself to her colleague on the analogy, although she may have been the first person ever to compare United Economy Plus to a Mercedes.

Back in April, a few days after a doctor was dragged off a United flight and bloodied, a honeymoon couple was removed from a flight after trying to move into empty exit row seats.

When I was a kid I used to ask for bulkhead seats and if I was lucky I’d get them. There didn’t used to be an extra charge. In my younger days if there were several open seats on a plane I’d move. More than once I flew to Australia in coach and stretched out in an entire empty row of middle seats.

Apparently even stretching out in open seats in your own row isn’t permitted on United — or at least wasn’t allowed for one young child on a United flight yesterday.

Now that airlines charge for seat assignments, they no longer want you to change your seat on your own or for free. But do regular flyers know? Should they?

Air New Zealand offers the ‘SkyCouch’ — selling you the coach seats next to your own. Etihad is going to start doing that too. United doesn’t.

Is denying a passenger use of the empty seats next to them a reasonable policy, just an extension of ‘every seat costs money and if you want it you should pay for it’ or a step too far?

(HT: @zora)

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. Wow.

    I’m a pretty frequent flyer. I read many of the blogs, and Flyertalk. I know I can’t self-upgrade to the front cabin, and I know even the extra legroom seats on United are off limits. But I’ve never heard of not being able to use a vacant seat next to me. Lying down is prohibited? But can I put my book on that seat? Can I use the extra tray table for my drink, if my laptop is on my own one? Can I take advantage of the extra elbow room? Can I use the other half or the armrest?


  2. A seat in your class is empty, and the FAs have nothing better to do than even think twice about someone moving seats? MAYBE the time the spend complaining about this, and acting like seat police SHOULD be spent learning from Qantas and AIRNZ how to properly treat people. Fortunately, and I guess, miraculously, even though I move if it all possible, I’ve never witnessed nor had a confrontation.

  3. Naah…. the FA just moron, like most FA in USA. Probably jealous because she can’t have kid with her spouse.

    Sure, people need to pay to have a seat. At that time of the flight, the seat already cannot be sold. Or do you really expect some creature knock on your aircraft door and saying, “hey, I’m tired flying with my wings. I saw an empty seat in your plane. Can I seat there? Here’s my payment.”

  4. Passengers shouldn’t count on always being able to occupy the empty seats around them. Probably the average FA won’t care, but if you eventually run into a crew member who has a problem with people taking up more than one seat, it’s ridiculous to whine about being depriving of something you didn’t even pay for.

  5. To not let a child stretch out in available space is just heartless and cruel, though not as horrific as to purposefully let 20,000 extra people die a year as promised by Harvard if the Pig Party takes away 23 million Americans health care to give the money to billionaires who try to tell them they don’t need it. This is a strain of American nastiness that needs to be exposed to open and endless ridicule until they just stop.

  6. Ridiculous. United FA’s attitude, that is.

    I won a trip to Africa and was booked on an Emirates flight, DXB to JFK, way back in row 32 or something like that. Center seats. 4 across, and it was just hubby and me. I was able to lie down and get a good solid 6 hours of sleep in on that flight. No FA came by and harassed me. So my memory of Emirates is good, I would fly them again because I felt the service with a capital S was good, as was the food. Contrast that to a UA flight from ORD to FRA in Biz class (miles and $ upgrade) squishd seats row 10, constant noise, opening and closing of curtain, and non-existent service (lower case sensitive) and I say, never again.

  7. Every time I flew on UA’s 747’s to Sydney, was able to get a whole row across to get a full night’s sleep on the 14 hour flight. Sometimes the back half of the plane was like a dormitory. This lasted until the late 2000’s.

    I had a knack to ask nicely and get whole rows on overseas flights even on mostly full flights. I had an economy bed probably a hundred times.

  8. While I feel for the family that had this experience, this must have simply been a miscommunication, as it flies in the face of 99.999% of customers’ experiences, including on UA. I was on a fairly empty flight a few weeks ago and saw passengers sprawled across all manner of economy seats. I had an entire row of three in E+ to myself.

    I almost wonder if the parent staged the awkward photo, rather than simply ask the purser if the FA had really communicated the policy correctly. (Because it goes without saying that that isn’t UA’s policy.)

  9. I can certainly see not expanding into the middle seat if there’s someone in the window. But there is no one else in the row to disturb.

    And the FA’s cited reason is wrong: no one paid “good money” for those seats–that’s why they’re empty.

    Sometimes you get lucky and there are seats free; sometimes you don’t. It strikes me as totally nuts to actively make someone’s flight–especially a kid’s–worse by denying them the lucky break of the adjacent empty seats.

    A friend on Twitter pointed out that this must be a byproduct of United’s own crap labor relations–unhappy workers take it out on customers. But are United FAs’ conditions worse than other airlines’?

  10. When you fly a US Airline, you should be thankful for the privilege and feel proud that you are keeping American workers employed. In these times of extreme selfishness, we have forgotten that our purpose in life is to Make America Great Again by making personal sacrifices for the common good of the country. I for one would never even think of occupying an inch of a vacant seat next to me as it would amount to a handout – accepting space that I did not pay for – much less complain about being denied its use. Why is there such a huge decline in our collective moral values and self pride? Come on America, listen to and obey the overworked and underpaid flight attendants. They have to deal with so many of you selfish/obnoxious individuals on a daily basis. Give them a break.

  11. Lol What do you expect, its crap service provided by grandmothers, that should be grounded because they’re too old to fly & serve. Oh wait no they’re not here to serve, they’re there to provide security…. LMAO Fly the ME3 and you’ll have actually decent service, and not be a cattle lead to the slaughterhouse.

  12. ram, great parody post!

    About lost my lunch laughing over the great morals of the false patriots Making America Great (White) Again. They backed a carnival sideshow con man who stole the life savings of hundreds of veterans in his fake University but got to settle for their lawsuit $30 million after being elected, because these moral degenerates voted for the pussy-grabber anyway! The question isn’t IF they have daughters, but what they did to them. We already know they eat their own children, witness Vietnam and Iraq.

    Who on earth has lower morals than the MAGA hags? No lower scum. But not surprising because these are the very same racist KKKlan unredeemed for the worst sin in human history, who in front of the whole disbelieving world doubled down on racism instead of accepting the redemption offered by King and Carter, who they killed and demonized in response! Filthy degenerates, lowest scum on earth.

  13. Ram
    With all due respect, you probably dont have little kids or were everone, so have some respect and common decency. This isnt about entitlement …other than united fas have for years think they are entitled to authority and could careless about customer service.

  14. Once the doors are closed the plane’s revenue is locked in. No matter what happens with passengers, as long as the FAs don’t start serving economy passengers champagne, nothing will change money wise. If anything letting people try better seats for free is more likely to upsell them on better seats in the future. Not letting passengers take advantage of amenities for free at no cost to the airline is like charging first class passengers for an extra bag of nuts: pointless and negating any good service.

  15. @ Greg

    Eh … I think you have issues. You might want to consider investigating whether your beloved government subsidized health care insurance covers mental health evaluation and care.

  16. Yeah, I got issues and they are with you guys. No enemies I fought in Spec Ops behind enemy lines in three wars were as filthy and dirty as you vile racist scum. Now you’re traitors to your country letting the worst conman in world history sell US out to a communist dictator. I hope that jackboot leather you’re bootlicking tastes good. Believe me, I know how to deal with “issues” like you!

    And no, we are also the only modern nation that doesn’t cover mental health care. You guys made sure the champion of this issue Tipper Gore was silenced. Then you made sure guns were especially made available to the mentally ill. Who does this, anywhere on earth, except you redneck baboons?

  17. Greg, you sound like a miserable person. You, like most liberals on this blog, are just completely unhinged. You use a story about a power tripping FA to rant about your twisted political views? Pretty pathetic.

  18. Wow, I find it sad how people turn this and so many other situations into hate and politics. Are you sure this really happened? MANY things we read about now are simply there to sensationalize or bash people and companies. You don’t know if it did or didn’t happen. If you’re so outraged pick up the phone, call United and ask what their policy is on this. Show some civility people then react with your wallet and loyalty.

  19. Gary, do everyone here, including yourself, a huge favor and ban this ranting lunatic.
    Make VFTW Great Again!

  20. Another reason why I haven’t flown UA. 10 years and counting. UA F/A & pilots and airport agents are the rudest in the industry. Unpleasant to talk to. Ugly to look at. Their uniforms that is.

  21. Nothing makes me happier than the contenpt of hideously fat redneck baboons. I’m not going anywhere as long as there’s still free speech and you morally degenerate Perv supporters are openly committing treason.against the country I served with honor for 20 years in.3 wars.

  22. I fly United all the time and don’t have the problem.
    Bet they just made it up to get attention and maybe money

  23. These new developments seem synonymous with the leftist admonition not to fly. As are the “streetscape” changes in cities where the leftist agenda is not to drive. The convenience and comfort of ordinary citizens is desregarded in favor of corporations and the state.

  24. JS, yes it happened. It happened to a friend of mine. Her stroller was also broken. Look for a more thorough piece in the NYT. There are three children in the family. United has already reached out to the family with an apology for the attendant’s behavior and asked for details.

  25. Honestly – I think this is an isolated incident. IE: The Flight Attendants acting like power-mad assholes.

    I’ve watched people sleep on vacant seats multiple times on United. Including as recently as this past Tuesday, where I watched two adults (small women) managed to curl up on seats next to them and fall asleep the entire flight. Nobody bothered them or cared.

    Which is how it should be.

  26. Greg, please stop giving us fellow veterans a bad name. You’re making it look like we’re all as detached from reality as you are.

  27. I’m based in DEN and don’t ever fly UA. I prefer F9 to UA…that’s how bad I think UA is. A friend recently walked away from Global Services, splitting his flying between WN for domestic and paid Biz or F on any airline but UA for international.

    At some point, the piper will need to be paid for their behavior. Unfortunately, I think we’re some distance from that happening, especially as long as corporate rights have better governmental protections than customers.

  28. Save yourself the trouble and fly Southwest. They don’t assign seats; you can sit anywhere you want. You can pay an extra $15 for priority boarding so that you can get the seat you want, and the flight attendants and pilots are great. I flew for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Being disabled I was worried; the crew was great and very helpful. The flight attendants knew it was my first time and used dark humor to pull me pull of my fear. It was greatly appreciated!

  29. @greg I get it, everybody wants something for nothing. How much are you kicking going in to pay for health care so the middle slice can have new iPhones and 300 channels of cable tv. Can we get a number?

    Yeah, I thought so.

  30. @Greg –> Still with that fake veteran schtick? Stop lying. The closest you came to being a veteran was dating a Girl Scout.

  31. Never.diacussef my service career before here, Trump treason troll. Guarantee you never served and are at least 300 pounds.

  32. @Greg –>. I know you. Pathetic old loser claiming to be a veteran. And BTW the Girl Scout dumped you.

  33. @JC – @Greg is a teenage girl troll who makes hilarious comments in efforts to troll us. We’re wiser to acknowledge her silliness as none of her posts are coherent.

  34. Gary, your intros are becoming way to long. One reason I like your blog over some others is that usually you get to the point quickly (contrast with Mommy Points 😉 ) But lately you drone on and on with links to previous posts, etc. It gets annoying.


  35. @Greg –> Girl Scout reject claiming to be a big, bad veteran. You forget I know you, Greggy, and those 20 years of your life were not spent in the service; you were on the nonce wing. Does your parole officer know you are online?

  36. Ok first. If she was soo concerned with her child stretching out then she should have bought a second seat. That being said I think its pretty absurd that the child not be allowed to use the seat next to them if its empty (this is assuming that there is not another passenger on the other side of that seat). So if the whole rest of the row is empty I don’t see why the kid can’t sit there. I understand not changing classes of service or switching to a seat which is more expensive but this is just more of the typical FA power trip nonsense.

  37. Purchase of a ticket simply gives the airline the right but not the obligation to fly you to your destination and not neccesarily in the class or seat you have paid for. If you assume there is no level of despicability airlines will not stoop to you will not be disappointed

  38. Your story made it sound like the flight attendant told the little girl she couldn’t stretch out, which is not true at all. If you read the original posting you will learn that the family of 5 were lucky enough to get 4 the family moved to Economy Plus seats for free even though they paid Basic Economy prices (not even regular Economy).

    Instead of saying thank you, they find reasons to complain when the father tried to move up front with the rest of the family and the Flight Attendant wouldn’t let him.

    Why wasn’t it that when they were offered to move 4 seats – instead of the parents saying “let’s just move 3 and keep 1 child with the father” they chose to move 4 and leave the father in the back. That tells me there were looking for a way to get him up there.

    I have been on a number of flights in Economy Plus where people who booked cheaper seats try to move up. So I perfectly understand the Flight Attendants position on this.

    So yet again – another exaggerated story about a horrible airline when in reality is was probably the passengers that where mostly at fault.

    I primarily fly United ad log well over 140K miles per year across multiple airlines. And the rudeness on flights I see is almost always passengers.

  39. If I hear one more person talk about the overworked and underpaid FA I may scream. I fly every other week and more often than not the FAs are rude and act as if they are doing you a big favor by doing their job. And that is in business class! I expect ZERO service from them in coach, but in business I expect a little more. Why, because the FA working in business has seniority, is better paid, flying a better route, protected by a strong union and has tremendous perks that go with the job. The job she choose to do, and do for years. And she didn’t grow up dreaming to be a FA so she could make the world a safer place–seeing as safety is their number one priority…. FAs decide to be FAs so they can travel the world for free. Plain and simple. And the trade off is that you are a glorified waitress at 30,000 feet. Too bad but it is true. You are not a nurse. Or an EMT and did not choose this profession thinking you were going to save lives, you were focused on the benefits that go along with the union backed high pay scale of the job. Yes, 9/11 changed the job but no one took it because they thought they would make the skies safer. If that was in the forefront of their mind they would enlist in the army and see the world that way. In the meantime, be all that you can be while you get me the drink I asked 3 times for.

  40. And yes, ever since that conniving scam artists if a doctor got himself dramatically dragged off a United flight, BY O’HARE SECURITY, not but United staff, everyone will a cell phone is looking for the next big payday. And now, those of us who fly United regularly will now have to pay for that Doctor’s selfish lack of morals due to what United had to pay out. And the press is not helping in the way they sensationalize every story they report. Yes, we used to be able to spread out, but in reality, you buy one seat, you are entitled to one seat. No more and certainly no less. People are quick to complain when they get less, but never say a thing when they get more. People need to learn that they are not entitled to anything more than what they purchased, and learn to play by the rules. Adults and kids alike. If you want another seat, buy one, otherwise why is it fair that one person should be able to spread out but someone else should not? If we all play be the rules, everyone is treated fairly. If they then are not, then one has the right to complain.

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