United Airlines removed woman from flight to dying mother's bedside after ticketing glitch: "nobody flies for free"

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/01/26/united-airlines-removed-woman.html


While it is a sucky situation, it isn’t on United for bumping a passenger who’s ticket was cancelled that is not unreasonable on them to be perfectly honest.

I feel for her. I am trying to understand why the original ticket was voided in the first place, and why United wouldn’t purchase another ticket right then and there. Reality is, it isn’t on them to protect the consumer for fraud that is on the credit card company.



Good thing this is an isolated incident and not part of an ongoing pattern of abuse.


Well there is the thing…while plenty of the other issues with United definitely can be labeled as abuse to a customer, I do not think this one is abuse. They are certainly not being sympathetic/empathetic to the woman’s situation, but their behavior is not abusive to me.


Lots of cringeworthy jokes about this in a recent episode of “The Grand Tour.” The “Aeroplane vs sportscar across New York” episode.


Anyone with access to the paywalled source article have any idea what change was made that caused this whole mess?


Or how the ticket was valid long enough for her to board the plane, just not to fly on it…


Fly United.


It is absolutely on United to treat their passengers with common decency. Let alone to do so in situations that are caused by inefficiency with United’s own systems.

If the gate agent was any reasonable person they could have billed the card again, and have it all sorted out later. If the woman’s ID was good, and the ticket had actually been paid for, that should be the absolute end of it. Some bureaucratic rejection because of a change in address or other detail is absolutely not acceptable.


I have been in a situation where i get to my gate, get called up to the counter, and get told the travel agency my employer uses never paid for my ticket. I don’t recall what airline. But in that case they let me pay with my own card (at the original ticket price). I still don’t know how I got issued a boarding pass that day.

Airline reservation systems are weirdly complicated. It doesn’t make this ok. The humans involved could have offered other options.


Reading the article, there were three/four parties involved in the transaction.

  • The passenger.
  • The passenger’s landlord/friend who was paying for the ticket.
  • A travel agency, “Traveler Help Desk”.
  • United, the actual airline providing the transit.

I read the sequence of events is something like:

  1. Landlord/friend purchases ticket for passenger using “Traveler Help Desk” agency for a United flight.
  2. Landlord/friend makes a change to ticket directly with United, switching flights.
  3. United checked the passenger in and issued a boarding pass.
  4. United scanned the boarding pass and allowed the passenger to board the flight.
  5. “Traveler Help Desk” saw a change to the ticket they didn’t do and voided the ticket.
  6. United kicked her off the plane.

There’s issues with several of those and the exact timeline. Most of them represent failures of United’s systems. Some are failures of “Traveler Help Desk”.

If the events were in this exact order, how did “Traveler Help Desk” void the ticket after a boarding pass was issued? Why did United’s systems let that action occur. In fact, unless it was a refundable ticket (not likely) how is it even possible to void the ticket? It’s not like United or any airline, ever wants to refund a ticket.

If the order of events is wrong, and step 5 happened before 3, and they voided the ticket before she checked in, then why did United issue her a boarding pass? Even if the void was between checking in and boarding, why did they let her board. Which just get’s us back to, if after boarded, how is it possible to void the ticket?

Additionally, “Traveler Help Desk” may have had good intention, but stranding someone because you couldn’t reach them to be sure it wasn’t fraud is probably much worse than the fraud. Especially since the credit card company could have dealt with any fraud and the travel agency didn’t need to be in the business of second guessing that a customer went around them for a change.

So, I see it as “Traveler Help Desk” messed up. And, United messed up even worse. Worse for United, since they messed up on basic travel system requirements no matter the sequence of events. United’s systems let a scenario occur that should never be possible.

Worse yet, it reinforces the notion that on United, you’re not actually actually on a flight until it’s in the air. Talk about adding travel stress.


With United’s track record for their sheer level of cruelty, I’d be worried that even that isn’t going to be enough in the future.


When the ticket was initially booked, her mother was ill but not critical. After the initial booking, she found out that her mother had gone into heart failure and likely wouldn’t survive another day. The landlord who was paying for the ticket couldn’t reach the online booking agent who she made the original booking through, so she contacted United to change the flight to an earlier one. She told United the whole thing, and they assured her it wouldn’t be a problem. Then it was.

When the gate agent came on board to pull the daughter from the flight, the daughter told the gate agent she was flying to see her dying mother, who was in critical condition. At that point, the gate agent should have allowed her to stay on board. Period. Instead, the gate agent pulled her from the flight, and the landlord called to say she would pay for the ticket, just get the daughter on the plane. The gate agent refused.


Sir, you’ll have to deplane now.

But… but we’re airborne now!

For an additional fee, you can upgrade to a parachute.


i read the article too. I did not see the exact reason they did the initial cancellation. It seemed muddy to me in the article to say the least.

@mindfu I agree on they should be treating customers with decency, but you are making assumptions about the agent and United rep’s words and tone here. You cannot say they were not sympathetic as individuals, though i would concur the company didn’t seem to be by all accounts. While you may call something a bureaucratic rejection which a tone of condemnation, those rules/regulations/policies are there for a reason and most often with good reason and protecting all parties involved…not just the corporation.

Again, it is clearly a horrid situation all around. And it seems like there was a path to resolve it for the better and it wasn’t taken. This isn’t the line in the sand to tear United down IMO. Feel free to ofc have your own opinion, it isn’t something I care to have a long drawn out argument over. Have a nice day.

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“Nobody flies for free” is just the second part of United’s policy on this matter. The first part reads “ass, gas, or cash.”


“Traveler Help Desk” didn’t really help at all here is part of the problem. I can’t think of a good reason for them to do anything. United screwed up too, in that their systems allowed the events to even occur.

If I was assigning blame, it would be 20% “Traveler Help Desk” and 80% United. “Traveler Help Desk” for it’s procedures and actually canceling the ticket. United because it’s systems allowed the cancel to occur after a boarding pass was issued OR for issuing a boarding pass after the ticket was cancelled. United systems should have prevented either and there wouldn’t have been any issue. “Sorry, we’ve already issued the boarding pass it’s to late to cancel the ticket” or “Sorry, the boarding pass has already been scanned, it’s to late to cancel the ticket” and there’s no problem. Just as good, “Sorry we can’t issue you a boarding pass the ticket is canceled. Passenger fixes issues with plenty of time before flight leaves.” or “Sorry, your boarding pass is invalid the ticket was cancelled. Passenger fixes issues with limited time before flight leaves.”.

It’s bad PR for both “Traveler Help Desk” and United. I wouldn’t use either in the future.


The basic problem here: Booked through a travel agent and then tried to change the ticket directly with the airline. That doesn’t normally work. I’m guessing someone at United bent the rules in her favor but a fraud-protection routine kicked in and it blew up on her.

So… Sketchy Travel Agency cancels woman’s ticket, and we blame United because it’s easy and will generate clicks. Disappointing.

Some commenters have suggested that the airline should have reissued a ticket as the plane was leaving. If the plane was about to leave, then they would not have had time to process a new reservation. Policies state that you must be checked in a certain amount of time before the flight, not as it’s about to taxi down the jetway. Ticketing is not instantaneous. It’s not a carnival ride. Tickets would require a counter purchase and another trip through TSA, likely with an SSSS on the boarding pass.

One commenter believes that when the daughter told the gate agent that she was flying to see her dying mother, the airline should have allowed her to stay on board. I’ll remember that for my next flight so I can cancel my ticket after I’m on board. TSA would love that too.