Doing the right thing vs. minding your own business

As long time readers know, I have a tendency to speak my mind regardless of the issue, for better or for worse. So this afternoon I was waiting for my flight from Washington Dulles to Chicago O’Hare, and at the gate across from me was a flight to Miami (operated by United Express on an E170). I sat down in the seating area for that gate since it wasn’t as crowded. Out of curiosity I always look at the “status monitors” at the gate, just to get an idea how full the flights are (since I love bumps I learn as much as I can about loads on flights on certain days, and I was curious to see how full the Miami flight was).

Anyway, this flight was supposed to depart at 12:23PM, and at around 12:05PM I noticed two people sitting in the gate area right by the podium, while the rest of the gate area was empty. The monitor had the “We are looking for volunteers” sign, and there were two people on the “confirmed awaiting seats” list. So the situation quickly made sense to me — the two people sitting in the gate area were confirmed passengers but the flight was oversold and they didn’t have seat assignments, so the gate agent was hoping for no shows. I’ve been in the situation many times before as a volunteer. A few more people show up, but the gate agent says “I’m pretty sure we’ll get you on.”

At 12:10PM the gate agent prints these two passengers boarding passes, as they let out a sigh of relief. The second he lets them on he goes down the jetway with them. Now, keep in mind that the rule is passengers have to show up at the gate ten minutes before scheduled departure time, which would be 12:13PM. I was quite curious to see what would happen at this point, given that there may very well be a few more passengers running to make the connection. At 12:12PM a guy shows up at the gate. I verified the time both based on the clock on the departure board and my Blackberry.

The agent returned a few minutes later and the passenger in the gate area said “I’m on this flight.” The gate agent said he arrived too late and that the flight was closed. The gate agent printed out some papers and brought them down the jetway. So the jetway hadn’t been pulled and the door was open. Typically people get angry when they miss a flight, either in the form of cussing or tears. This guy was amazingly calm. He didn’t say a word. The gate agent offered to rebook him tomorrow morning or via Chicago (as a mileage runner I loved the sound of that). The guy was just so calm and friendly, that I felt like I needed to help him. The fact is that he was involuntarily denied boarding, because he did show up 11 minutes before departure. I can’t blame the gate agent for closing the door with a full flight of confirmed passengers, but this guy was entitled to compensation.

I thought about it for a few minutes, and at around 12:20PM as the guy continued to stand there, I walked up to him in plain sight of the gate agent and said something like “Sir, while I’m not on this flight, you were here more than 10 minutes before departure and were bumped because the flight was oversold. The gate agent was definitely doing his best, but you are still entitled to involuntary denied boarding compensation.” The gate agent overheard this and in a nice tone said “no, he’s not, because I had already pulled the jetway.” I said something like “Sir, I realize you were trying to act in United’s best interest, but you were in the jetway 13 minutes before departure and completely missed when this passenger showed up. I was looking at the terminal clock and my Blackberry.” The gate agent disagreed yet again, and claimed that he can close the flight whenever he wants and that’s final. The passenger agreed with me but didn’t seem willing to fight. Anyway, I explained one more time to the passenger what he was entitled to, and left the rest up to him. My flight was boarding in the meantime, so I didn’t see the result, but I’m guessing he didn’t get anything.

So yes, my actions were definitely out of place (mind your own business, Lucky!), but were they wrong? I thought about this beforehand and couldn’t reach a conclusion. I always try to help people not as familiar with the rules, and this guy was plainly being screwed over. I felt bad for him.

What say you?

Filed Under: Travel
  1. You did your best. Ultimately, it was up to him to fight the battle. Question is – how far would have gone to defend him, if had decided he was getting screwed over? Would you have missed your flight if he asked you to be a witness?

  2. This happened to me at ORD once on the last flight of the day to SFO. One GA working a full A320 and I went to board 15 minutes before departure and was told my seat was given away because I didn’t bored with zone 1 but instead waited until zone 3. You can imagine how upset I was but I didn’t understand denied boarding at the time. C’est la vie.

  3. 10 minutes, i thought i was 15 (so says a gate agent), in that case i defiantly have been screwed over just like this guy. Too bad you weren’t there to defend me.

    On a side note, if this guy’s delay was caused by a late incoming flight, would he get a hotel room?

  4. Ethically you did the right thing, if UA’s stated policy is the 10 minute rule..The GA wasn’t acting ethically by closing the flight early.

  5. I think the timid and unfortunate passenger who was bumped should get compensation, but I will never know the reason why the passenger in question was not in the boarding area at that time (maybe he’s in a previous flight that arrived late, or he’s in the men’s restroom).

    Yesterday in PHX, while waiting to board the plane for a US Airways flight to SMF that was delayed for 30 minutes due to maintenance problems, I sat at another area where another US Airways flight to PDX’s boarding was almost complete. 2 or 4 confirmed passengers were no show, but the gate agent called on volunteers to take the flight 5 and 3 minutes before departure. I wish that’s what the United gate agent could have done in your posting.

  6. Well done for helping out the passenger. Ultimately it was up to him if he had wanted to argue the issue and rely on your pertinent assistance. In this case he didn’t but others might. It comforting to know that there are others who would assist with independent verification of such scenarios.

  7. You did the right thing.

    As for “[t]he gate agent disagreed yet again, and claimed that he can close the flight whenever he wants and that’s final,” that’s irrelevant. Regardless of whether he can close the flight early — and you can think of cases where that might be justified, like trying to beat incoming heavy weather that would delay the entire planeload for hours — he has still IVDB’d the passenger who arrives in time.

  8. I’d have done the same. As long as one is diplomatic about it (which you certainly appear to have been), I believe that a bystander should generally intervene in the interest of the good.

  9. This 13 minute thing happened to me earlier in the week, but I didn’t see Ben!! I arrived late at ORD due to high winds. I had to do the run from the E gates to C. Ok, so I walked and ran. It seems that my flight ORD/DFW was delayed by 10 minutes (good news). At least now, I had a shot at making the flight.
    If I missed it, I’d be stuck and on my own overnight (as a PremEx). As I got to the gate, I saw the door was closed. I wasn’t happy. There was another passenger just standing there patiently. When the gate agent came back, I very politely pleased with him to let us on the plane. Many times, the jetway hasn’t pulled away yet; so it’s possible to open the door and let folks on. I did convince the GA to call down the jetway (wonder if he really called), and he said no luck.
    Here’s where I get to the 13 minutes. The guy who was already waiting at the gate when I arrived at the 10 minute mark, told me he was standing there for a few minutes. How many? I don’t know. 2, 3 6? Don’t know.
    Anyway, I got re-booked the following morning. The next day, UA proactively e mailed me a note and 1 e-500 upgrade cert. Hmmm. I didn’t expect this, but if UA was offering this for a mis-connect, I thought they could do better After an e mail explaining what I just wrote above, UA responded with a Goodwill $150 cert.

    Gate agents know when late arriving passengers have landed. Twice in the last month, I was greeted by name as I got to the gate, since I was the last passenger. Those smart GA’s figured out it was me!

    So how come this gate agent closed the doors prior to the 10 minute mark? I’m wondering if this is the next ‘new’ problem?

  10. United’s rule is 20 minutes. See the contract of carriage, pages 18 to 19.


  11. I’m a newbie but have been following you for a long time. You did the right thing. I’d love someone to approach me and fill me in on the in & out’s of any industry especially when the guy was acting so camly.

  12. The gate agent was incorrect in the way he handled this and should have comped the passenger as a goodwill gesture for missing his flight.

  13. I thought it was 10 mins on UA as well. Forget the CoC for a moment — what do the depature boards say? I thought they say something like ‘pax must be onboard 10 mins prior to depature.’ If the board in the gate area says that, that’s what most pax are going to see (not the CoC!)

  14. Seems that UA has conflicting info–20 minutes in the COC and 10 minutes on the airport boards.

    Ben, if you see this before the dinner tonight, you should mention it to UnitedPR.

    I think you did the right thing, based on your understanding of the situation.

  15. The 20 minutes in COC covers only to be at the boarding area. the 10 minute rules is for being on the plane. In this case, the UA agent followed the rules correctly, *and* rebooked the passenger without fees. No compensation is due.

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