Untied Airlines: a personal perspective

One man's experiences
with United, Lufthansa,
and the rest of the Star Alliance

26 February 2012
17 June 2012
31 December 2012

31 December 2012: UA 29, LHR to EWR

Summary: United overbooked a flight from Heathrow to Newark. It was required by law to first call for volunteers, and then—in case there weren't enough volunteers—to offer rebooking and 300 EUR in compensation to anyone denied boarding (or 600 EUR if the rebooked flight arrived more than four hours after the original flight was scheduled to arrive). Instead it started trying to make space on the plane by unilaterally transferring people, including me, to other flights (and of course not offering compensation). By pure luck I found out about this just barely in time to undo the transfer.

Monday 31 December 2012, early morning. I was scheduled to fly

  • UA9237 (operated by Lufthansa) from Hamburg to Heathrow, departing 07:28 and arriving 08:05;
  • UA29 from Heathrow to Newark, departing 10:25 and arriving 13:35; and
  • UA875 from Newark to Chicago, departing 17:54 and arriving 19:47.
I had a 15:30 appointment with Customs and Border Patrol in the Newark airport to interview for Global Entry. (There's also a Global Entry office in Chicago, but that office was fully booked for months.)

I had signed up for email departure notification from United. Three hours before the first flight, at 04:20:49 Hamburg time, United sent a "Departure reminder - UA9237 departing HAM". I flew to Heathrow without incident.

Monday 31 December 2012, 09:30. My boarding pass listed a boarding time of 09:50. 20 minutes before that I managed to check email in Heathrow. I found that, at 09:00:49 Heathrow time, United had sent a "Departure reminder - UA949 departing LHR".

Wait a minute: 949? What flight is that?

The email continued: "Departs: 12:05 p.m. on December 31 from gate 248, London, England (LHR - Heathrow). Arrives: 3:15 p.m. on December 31 at Chicago, IL (ORD - O'Hare)."

Evidently there were now free seats on the direct Chicago flight. Perhaps those were as nice as the seat that United had confirmed for me on the Newark flight; perhaps not. But I couldn't fly directly to Chicago; I had an appointment at the airport in Newark.

I fired up the United web page and found an ominous red message in my itinerary: "A modification has been made to your itinerary. Please contact United Reservations to have your ticket reissued." A direct "LHR-ORD" note appeared later in the itinerary without a seat assignment.

If you show up on time at a flight with a confirmed ticket and a confirmed boarding pass then the airline still won't let you on the plane if it thinks that your ticket hasn't been "issued". Finding out 20 minutes before boarding that my ticket needed to be "reissued" reminded me very much of a previous incident in which (1) I learned only at the airport that United had failed to "issue" my ticket and (2) United took so long to fix the problem that I missed a series of two international flights.

Monday 31 December 2012, 09:37. I called United, uselessly.

Monday 31 December 2012, 09:43. I gave up on the phone call.

Monday 31 December 2012, 09:50. I arrived at the gate. Apparently boarding had begun somewhat earlier (09:34, one agent later told me), but the gate wasn't empty yet; apparently there were still some people boarding, and some people standing around (perhaps hoping to get on the plane, perhaps waiting to talk to agents about rebookings).

I reported to an agent that United was trying to move me to the Chicago flight, but that I had a boarding pass for the Newark flight and wanted to be on the Newark flight. This prompted ten minutes of agent discussion, including two phone calls and endless tapping on the computer.

"Was the flight overbooked?" I asked one idle agent.


"Did you call for volunteers?"

"We don't have to call for volunteers."

"Actually, you're required by law to call for volunteers. It's European regulation 2004 slash 261."

"I'm quite familiar with the law."

Two other agents subsequently confirmed that the flight had been overbooked, but claimed that United had called for volunteers. It's always interesting to see how the story from United agents before I mention the law is quite different from the story after I mention the law.

One of those agents, after some time on the phone, told me that United was merely offering me the option of flying directly to Chicago. But the email didn't say

Flight number: UA29
Departs: 10:25 a.m. on December 31 from gate 3, London, England (LHR - Heathrow)
Arrives: 1:35 p.m. on December 31 at Newark, NJ (EWR)

Please note that we have a free seat on flight 949 directly to Chicago. If you're interested in this option, please contact a United agent at gate 3 before 09:50 a.m. London time. Of course, we'll keep your seat on UA29 if we don't hear from you.

The email said
Flight number: UA949
Departs: 12:05 p.m. on December 31 from gate 248, London, England (LHR - Heathrow)
Arrives: 3:15 p.m. on December 31 at Chicago, IL (ORD - O'Hare)
There was never a departure reminder for UA29.

Eventually I was given new boarding passes and was allowed onto the plane. United didn't even apologize for the half hour of completely unnecessary stress.

Version: This is version 2013.01.04 of the 20121231.html web page.