United Airlines violates passenger privacy during chaotic boarding process

By | August 8, 2019

Earlier today, I flew on United Airlines flight 3663, operated by Republic Airways, from Newark to Cleveland.

Those of you who subscribe to my blog may recall that our family are by no means fans of United, which, when it was called Continental, managed to lose my unaccompanied minor daughter (believe it or not, they’ve made that mistake numerous times over the years). We fly on United only when we have no other choice; we sometimes pay significantly more to fly on another airline than it would have cost on United. Therefore, I wasn’t particularly surprised that today’s flight was a disappointment.

However, I want to be even-handed, so before I tell you the bad stuff, I want to acknowledge some good:

  1. United’s web site is among the best of any airline I’ve used. It is fast and responsive and has a good user experience. The website for JetBlue, which is by far my family’s favorite airline, isn’t nearly as good.
  2. I was originally scheduled to fly yesterday rather than today, but two days ago United sent me an alert about a severe weather forecast for Newark and offered to rebook my flight for free if I wanted. I was able to easily rebook the flight through the web site, and the checked bag payment I’d already made for the original flight was automatically transferred to the new one. Rebooking was definitely the right choice, since in the end the flight I was originally on was delayed by nearly seven hours.
  3. The flight itself was perfectly fine, and seat pitch and leg room were adequate.

What went wrong, on the other hand, all happened during boarding.

First, somehow the gate agents managed to put more people onto the plane than there were seats. I know this has happened before, but it never ceases to amaze me. How is this possible? There should be only one valid boarding pass for each seat at any given time, the computer should know which passes are valid, and every pass is scanned before a passenger is allowed down the Jetway, so how do you end up with more people on the plane than there are seats? It’s unfathomable. The flight attendants ended up removing two passengers from the plane.

Second, there was a family on the flight with young children and an infant whose seats were scattered all over the plane, probably because they were a late addition from another flight that had been canceled the previous day. I am under the impression that this kind of thing is supposed to be resolved at the gate: the gate agents can, and should, change seating assignments to accommodate families with young children and then issue new boarding passes to everyone whose seats were changed. None of this happened. Instead, the flight attendants played musical chairs during boarding until everyone was sitting in a seat, significantly delaying our departure.

This brings us to the third and most serious problem. I was one of the people displaced when the flight attendants moved the family. As I approached my assigned seat, a flight attendant intercepted me, told me what my new seat assignment was, and handed me the boarding pass for that seat which she had taken away from the family that was moved. While the exposure from information on boarding passes is overblown, it still contains private information which airline employees should not cavalierly hand to other passengers.

All three of these problems have a common thread which is also evident in the incident when United (then Continental) lost my daughter: inadequate processes, policies, and training leading employees to do things they shouldn’t and not do things they should. United should be investing more effort (and money!) into defining its processes and policies, training employees in how to apply them, and learning from mistakes.

Unfortunately, my experience today has not changed my mind about avoiding United.

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