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We showed up 10 minutes before departure, but missed our flight to Honolulu.  Are we entitled to more compensation?

Dear Anita,

Last November, I flew to Hawaii on United from Salt Lake City through Los Angeles to Honolulu. We had an hour-long connection in Los Angeles, so my friend and I checked in at the gate, noticed that we needed to be back at the gate by 10 minutes before departure, and then went to get a snack.

When we returned to the gate, promptly 10 minutes before departure, we found the gate area empty and the plane fully boarded. The gate attendant informed us that we were too late and that the plane was about to take off.

We were stunned. As we begged him to let us on the plane, another couple showed up. They had also previously checked in and were denied boarding. Then, 10 other people arrived. Their connection had been late, and they were running and were out of breath. The gate attendant informed us all that there was nothing he could do, that they had boarded the plane 15 minutes before departure instead of 10 minutes, and that they would not put the ramp up to let us board.

Then, with 14 angry passengers demanding to be let on the plane, after we had been there for five minutes, we watched the plane take off five minutes early. It was an outrage! All that United did was give us $50 vouchers for the inconvenience. We didn't end up leaving for five more hours. On a long trip already, those extra five hours was quite an inconvenience, especially when they very well could have let us board.

When we asked why they had boarded and left five minutes early, they said that United has been trying to improve its on-time record. Well, that's a great intention, but when they are so unreasonable as to leave five minutes early when 14 passengers are wanting to board, and four of those arrived at the appointed time, I see no rhyme or reason.

Do you have any wisdom to shed as to why any business would treat their customers this way? Tickets to Hawaii are not cheap and United's customer service that day was plain rotten.

Also, do you have any suggestion as to what our chances are in seeking more compensation? This was something that was completely within the airlines' control. I think I am entitled to at least a free ticket, not just $50.

Thanks for your advice,
Rachel in Colorado
 

Dear Rachel,

There seems to be a lot of confusion these days as to when passengers need to be at the gate and aboard the aircraft. Airlines are zealously trying to improve their on-time performance by closing the aircraft doors five to 10 minutes prior to the departure time. According to United Airlines' Contract Of Carriage, even if you have checked in for your flight, United can cancel your reservation (and all continuing and return reservations) if you are not at the departure gate ready to board at least 30 minutes prior to departure time.

Given that you had been told personally by agents to be at the gate 10 minutes prior to departure, I contacted United Airlines regarding your problem. They responded with the following letter.


United Airlines Responds:

Dear Ms. Dunham-Potter,

…I am sympathetic to the situation that [Ms. F.] and [Ms. W.] experienced in Los Angeles on November 8. In researching the history of their reservations, I can verify that United Shuttle Flight 2877 from Salt Lake City arrived in Los Angeles at 12:34 p.m. or approximately two hours prior to the scheduled departure of United Flight 55 to Honolulu.

Our gate agents begin the check-in process for flights approximately one hour prior to a flight’s scheduled departure time. The actual boarding of our wide-body aircraft, as was utilized for the F./W. party’s flight to Honolulu, begins 40 minutes prior to departure. For flights to Hawaii, any unclaimed seat assignments are released to stand-by passengers at 30 minutes prior to the flight’s departure. This policy applies even when a boarding pass has previously been issued. Our agents begin the final closeout procedures for a flight ten minutes prior to scheduled departure. At that time, reservations are subject to cancellation if the customer is not checked-in and on the aircraft.

Once a flight has been prepared for departure and the captain has obtained permission from the local air traffic authority to leave the gate, the flight is considered closed. Should passengers arrive at the gate late and after final boarding has been concluded, our agents are trained to arrange alternate flights on the first available United flight to a passenger’s final destination.

Ms. Dunham-Potter, although we do not feel that our gate representatives acted outside of the bounds of their responsibilities, our agents should certainly have made sure all options for boarding the late arriving passengers had been considered. I regret any misunderstanding or miscommunication that may have occurred. As a gesture of goodwill from Customer Relations, please extend the enclosed discount travel certificates, which are in addition to the travel credits Ms. F. and Ms. W. received in Los Angeles. We look forward to an early opportunity to serve their travel needs again.

Sincerely,

Wendy Biliskov
Executive Services
Customer Relations



(Editor's note: United Airlines extended $150 in certificates to Ms. F. and Ms. W. in addition to the $50 voucher they received in Los Angeles. Their total compensation was $200 per passenger.)

While United admitted no wrongdoing, I feel they have been very fair with their "goodwill" gesture in this matter. This incident should be a lesson to all fliers to play it safe, and be at the departure gate at least 40 minutes before scheduled departure. In addition, passengers need to realize if they are flying on a wide-body aircraft, boarding time usually starts 45 minutes prior to departure. Although United accommodated Ms. F. on another flight, they are not required to do so. Understand that most airlines' rules of carriage state that if you do not show up for your flight, they can cancel your reservation and charge you an additional amount to continue your trip. The airlines' only obligation to you is to refund your ticket; any cancellation fees will apply to this type of refund. The aforementioned does not apply to a non-refundable ticket.


I hope I've been helpful. Happy travels!

Anita Dunham-Potter

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