Hey United, there are two Charlestons — learn to tell ’em apart

charlestonDon’t get your Charlestons confused. United Airlines did, and look at where it got Mo Shah and his family.

I’m not sure if his problem, which involves a series of unfortunate events at the airport leading to an abbreviated anniversary celebration, is fixable. But there’s plenty to learn for those of us watching from the sidelines. (And who knows, maybe the airline will do the right thing?)

If nothing else, Shah’s case shows the need to be very specific when you’re dealing with air travel arrangements. Otherwise you could end up missing your plane. Or flying to the wrong continent.

The “little” thing that stole valuable hours from Shah’s vacation? A seemingly small qualifier — W.Va versus S.C.

Shah, his wife, and two kids were flying from Washington to Charleston, S.C., for the special weekend. They’d secured reservations at an exclusive restaurant that evening.

“We were through security and heading toward the gate well before the scheduled boarding time of 11:50 a.m.,” he says. “The gate in question is at United’s ‘A’ gates, which serve commuter lines. Each gate actually serves up to six flights, so you can imagine the activity at the gate.”

So there they were on a Friday morning at Dulles, ready to go, when …

We noticed on the airport’s board that the flight was delayed to 12:45 p.m.

In addition, at the gate there is a United monitor (not the airport one) that shows the flight (with destination) and also who is on the standby list and the status of boarding. There is one monitor dedicated to each flight (so there were six monitors at the gate).

This monitor said 12:45 p.m. as well, in parentheses also saying that the aircraft was being serviced. In addition to that, both my wife and I got automated calls from United saying that the flight was delayed.

At about 12:20 p.m., United made an announcement that the Charleston flight was about to board. But when the family tried check in at the gate, the scanner shrieked — they were on the wrong flight. This was the Charleston, West Virginia flight.

“We pointed to the board that showed that Charleston South Carolina was delayed. I swear, as we were pointing this out to the gate agent, the monitor changed and our flight dropped off. The gate agent shrugged,” remembers Shah.

Turns out the other Charleston flight had already left. Shah asked United for help at the “customer service” counter.

“The customer service agents started the usual spiel of how you have to be in the gate area anyway, when other passengers started getting in line after us, also agitated that the flight had left,” he says. “The tone shifted from blame — ‘You must have missed the announcements’ — to one of slight contrition.”

Eventually, United agreed to put the Shahs on the next flight to Charleston. But that didn’t quite fix the problem. He explains:

I ended up spending the bulk of our anniversary in the gate area, balancing a laptop on my knee and trying to watch a DVD with my wife.

We missed the dinner reservations that we were so looking forward to and didn’t get into Charleston until a good six hours after we were supposed to. Not the end of the world, but certainly a really poor way to spend a nice chunk of our much anticipated getaway.

After they returned, United offered both Shah and his wife 2,500 frequent flier miles for their inconvenience. It was the best the airline could do, they told him, because of something called a “compensation matrix.”

Shah thinks United can do better. I think so, too. Clearly, United offered these travelers vague, if not erroneous, information which cost them valuable time. Instead of explaining the compensation matrix to these customers, they should take the time to tell them what went wrong, how they intend to fix it, and offering a mutually acceptable solution.

But strictly speaking, there’s nothing in United’s contract of carriage, its legal agreement with Shah, that obligates it to give this tale of two Charlestons the happy ending he wants. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try.

“At this point, better compensation would be nice,” he told me. “But I’m not holding my breath.”

Should I mediate Mo Shah's case?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    “United offered both Shah and his wife 2,500 for their inconvenience”

    2,500 what? points? dollars?

    either way i think they are not really owed that much-

    were they in the area for the entire time? yes i know they got as message that “their flight” was delayed but i always make sure to stay with in visual range of my gate at all times. I would have noticed if another flight was boarding.

    maybe i am just OCD but i always get to the airport WAAY early and watch all the possible gate action. i have a feeling the OP went to eat since it was assumed that they had extra time.

  • jmtabb

    What about the flight number? Did the monitor show the flight number also? Which one did it show (the SC flight or the WV flight?)

    Just how many people missed the South Carolina flight?

    And they’re being offered “2500”. 2500 what? Points? Dollars?

    Ultimately it’s the customer’s responsibility to be in the right place and to pay attention to what’s going on at the gate. But I’m not clear on whether they were actually at the correct place. Were there two monitors for Charleston? Were they at the same gate? Were there announcements about the boarding for the SC flight at all?

    Just how many people actually made it onto the SC flight? And for those that did, how did they know they were in the right place? That’s how you’ll know if this was really an error by the airlines or if you had a bunch of people that weren’t paying very close attention…

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    Oh, the horror of sitting in an airport watching a DVD on your laptop. And missing a reservation! Could the OP have called and asked the restaurant to accomodate them at a later time? Sorry, but the OP was already compensated for his first world problems, and now he wants more?

  • Dutchess

    Sorry, this is why we use FLIGHT NUMBERS when you’re looking at your flight on the screens. I’m guessing they saw Charleston and assumed it was the right one, but if you had confirmed the flight number you would have seen it was on time. This is complete user error and UAL was generous to offer them some miles as compensation but this was not UAL’s fault. And they got them to SC after all, not sure why UAL should pay for their mistake.

  • Dutchess

    Not to mention, the airlines CoC limits their liability for this kind of thing and you aren’t entitled to compensation for “missing a dinner reservation”. If it was so absolutely important to you, you should have got there a day early.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    This one’s a tough one. I didn’t know there were 2 Charleston’s… and I could see why the OP got confused as well (although personally, I definitely would’ve checked the flight number any time there’s a problem with the flight). Can’t believe this would’ve been the first time United had to deal with this, though and now displayed the state along with the city in this case. (Not everyone is going to be able to read airport codes…) But in the end, United probably did enough, although it would’ve been nice in their letter to have said that they will now be displaying states as well as city names for any destinations that are similarly named. How would would that be?!?

  • $16635417

    When I saw the headline I suspected a story about how they boarded a flight for one of the Charlestons but the pilots mistakenly went to the other one. When I read the story it was a bit anti-climactic.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Frequent flier miles. Not sure how that got edited out in the final draft.

  • DChamp

    An airline offering cash? That’s something akin to a fairy tale. It’ll never happen.

  • maryannk

    I know those gates at Dulles, and yes they are chaotic and confusing. When I fly out of those gates, I’m extra careful and double check details, show a gate agent my boarding pass to make 100% sure I’m in the right place, etc. You need to pay extra attention in these situations.

  • lost_in_travel

    I may be sensing a conspiracy here, but did the text message about the delay have the right flight number on it? I wonder if there was a mix up in flights at United and that some passengers going to SC got a WV message. The timing is too close – boarding time for SC was 11:50 and the plane is delayed but by 12:20 the plane is gone. It looks to me like there is a good chance the text message was in error. Sure, the traveler should be very careful to verify, but still, what is the purpose of the text message if not for the airline to communicate? And these passengers were not the only ones so something was amiss.
    I am not sure what fair compensation would be, but if the text messages were wrong, at least a proper explanation is in order.

  • BillCCC

    I think that the OP was confused at the airport and now wants to blame United. I do not believe for a minute that the board changed just as they realized their mistake. One thing that there is no shortage of at an airport are monitors with flight information. To find this story credible the OP would have had to spend his whole time waiting for his flight staring at one monitor.

  • EdB

    I think a voucher for future travel would be more appropriate. I know if something like this happened to me, the FF miles would be worthless. I don’t fly enough (don’t fly any at all while the TSA exists) to earn enough miles to do anything with them.

  • Jeanne @ HeelsFirst

    This is the part that really gets me, “In addition to that, both my wife and I got automated calls from United saying that the flight was delayed.” Their flight that was supposed to board at 11:50 am was departed by 12:20pm, so there wasn’t even a five minute delay.

    My initial reaction in the beginning of the story was to tell them to pay attention, but when United calls you and tells you there’s a delay (and there IS a delayed “Charleston” flight), I don’t blame anyone for thinking their flight was delayed. This is clearly a United IT error and not human error. One of the few times I’ve voted to mediate!

  • Bernard Rappoport

    I save my text messages…so…if he has a text message, voila, there’s the proof that a simian in the IT department made a monumental goof and shouldn’t be getting his daily banana. OTH…I have flown out of these gates at IAD, and AC has a similar set-up at YYZ…multiple flights from a common gate area…and I have never missed a flight or boarded the wrong plane, because I pay attention.

  • EdB

    Those messages are generated automatically, not by a “simian” in IT. A human somewhere probably entered wrong information into the system, but that is not IT’s fault.

  • Liz Huff

    One time I booked a flight at 9:00 o’clock…thought it was 9 AM, but was 9 PM so I spent 12 hours in the airport – a very interesting experience watching the ebb and flow of Newark NJ. It was my fault, but the airline did, later in the day, allow me to change to an earlier flight (1 hour) without charge.

  • TonyA_says

    There are 3, but only CHS and CRW have regular scheduled flights (I think).


    I just did an itinerary for a mom and daughter traveling to CRW.
    There is a University there (and it is the State capital) so it is not that unknown.

    By the way, the United flights we are talking about in this story are not even operated by the same regional.

    I think it was:
    (EV) ExpressJet 5692 to CHS
    (C5) Commutair 5012 to CRW

    It is hard to believe no one is looking at the flight numbers and airport codes when checking departure and boarding times.

    I am not sure why the OP is blaming United for his own failure to check.
    Also not sure what else the OP wants – they were reaccommodated, they were given miles and they were not denied boarding.

  • TonyA_says


  • TonyA_says

    Yes. I can’t believe what I am hearing from other passengers. Complain and thou shall get free miles.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    “In addition to that, both my wife and I got automated calls from United saying that the flight was delayed.”
    I haven’t flown United for a little while, but I vaguely remember that those calls have a flight number referenced in the call. Like, “Flight #1234 going to Charleston has been delayed. Your new departure time is now 12:45 p.m.”

    I’m a big believer in knowing my flight number, while my husband, the numbers guy, doesn’t pay so much attention to the flight number, but to the destination. Me, I’d go up to the gate agent and ask what was going on. My husband, he’d figure that the flight number had changed and stay seated..

    I say mediate, as in strike a balance between customer and airline, since both seem to be at fault here, but the larger percentage of fault seems to be United’s, once that phone call came into play.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    step up, UA, do the right thing

  • uniqueme

    This is the original poster here. To clarify a couple of points: there were at least half a dozen people who also got notificaction that the flight was delayed and was left at Dulles when the flight took off on time. I also was very clear that the flight number on the delay notification and on the monitor was my flight. The one thing about compensation was that another passenger that was Rebooked on the same later flight we were rebooked on got compensated with a $100 flight voucher for the same issue, and I thought it was an issue of fairness for passengers to be treated similarly. My biggest problem is united abdicating responsibility when it sends a proactive notification on a flight delay, but the flight takes off anyway.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Charleston, WV is the state capital and have a lovely route into the downtown area and Capitol complex. It also has the Abraham Lincoln statue in the bathrobe looking pensive on the Capitol lawn.

    Charleston, IL has the world’s largest Abraham Lincoln statue. Okay, it was big, but that was about it.

    Charleston, SC is unlikely to have a statue of Lincoln anywhere; at least, I didn’t see one while we were there for a couple of hours.

    I’ll head over to your blog to catch up on more esoteric locales. :)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Whoa, your additional information changes the dynamics here totally! Thanks for the clarification.

  • Stereoknob

    If anything, the compensation seemed decent. I’d like to see you mediate it to get the airline to apologize and correct it’s ways. Seems like they need someone performing quality control at all times.

  • Rob S.

    I am confused as to what happened. Were they booked on the wrong flight or did they watch the wrong monitor at the gate ?

  • uniqueme

    if I were you I would not believe it either. But they were at least a half dozen other passengers off of this small commuter flight that I saw with the same problem, and we all got text messages or calls that this specific flight was delayed (and no subsequent notification that the flight was going to leave on time). Just FYI.

  • jpp42

    I find it amusing that in this post you state the origin of their flight as simply “Washington” with no clarification on whether this is the east coast city – Washington DC, or the west coast state! It seems likely it must be Washington DC, since I’m quite sure that neither Charleston is served by any airports in Washington state. But it’s still interesting how easy it is for people to forget to clarify such ambiguities, even within an article on the very subject. (Of course, it seems the actual origin of these flights is Dulles Airport in northern Virginia: which is not really in either Washington! )

  • Cam

    I think a larger number of points would do the trick.

  • TonyA_says

    Can you please post the flight number and date. I want to investigate further. thanks

  • TonyA_says

    I think there is more to this story. It has to do with this …

    14 CFR 259.8
    Notify passengers of known delays, cancellations, and diversions.

    Promptly notifying passengers and the public of known flight status changes:
    Diversion, Cancellation, and Delay of 30 minutes or more in the planned operation.

    “Promptly” is defined as within 30 minutes after the carrier becomes aware of the status change.

    Carrier becomes aware of the delay whenever its System Operation Control Center (SOCC) first learned about the information.

    It is an unfair and deceptive practice for a carrier to fail to pass the information on to passengers within this time frame because of its internal procedural shortcomings.

    So what does an airline do, especially when operating in the DC area where airspace conditions can rapidly change?

    Whenever there is a planned change they immediately make robot calls, send text messages and emails – because they simply want to comply with the law.

    But if the planned change (i.e. delay, cancellation, etc.) never really occurs, the law does not require them to do a similar or another notification.
    In other words, this rule or law does not require the airline to notify a passenger if the flight is leaving on time or early.

  • TonyA_says

    They do NOT have to notify you a flight is leaving ON TIME.

  • adventurebaby

    I think the OP is not giving a truthful story. If the airline had posted the wrong flight AND texted all the passengers erroneously that their flight was delayed until 12:45pm the whole planeload of passengers would have missed that flight and someone would have noticed. I think this family and maybe 1 other clueless traveler mistook WV for SC on their own. Otherwise, the airline wouldn’t have been able to fit them all onto the next flight either – flights are full. He probably didn’t read his text message closely. How did he not see his SC flight in that gate area too?

  • emanon256

    In my experience, most of the regional just at IAD get delayed, and then un-delayed, and then re-delayed, and then the gate gets changed, and so fourth. I remember running between A and C 4 times in one night back when the only had the big shuttles, because my gate kept changing. With all the regional carriers it can get quite chaotic. The most common experience is that they delay a flight, and then due to a plane change, or finding alternate crew, they then have it leave on-time again, or close to on time, so its important to stay at the gate. Although that is not always the case. Also, the text messages they send state to remain at the gate as the time might change back, and to confirm with gate agent as flight times change frequently. So its likely their flight was delayed, but due to other circumstances, they were still able to leave on-time, and the OP had left the gate.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    UA5738 4/26

  • Reichen

    Absolutely, the same thing happened to me when my mother died. I was trying to get to Charleston, West Virginia and when I checked in I was told that the agent on the phone had made a mistake and booked me on a flight to South Carolina. The flight to West Virginia had already left. The agents at the gate thought it amusing. It was not a good time for me. Given the similarity in names I think that they need to be taking a lot more care with these flights. It is not an inconvenience when it is due to sheer negligence, it is an example of stupidity and lack of attention to detail on the part of the airlines.

  • TonyA_says

    Thanks the event timeline of this flight should be interesting.
    I’ll check it out.
    Meantime here is a link for your readers:

    They might need a login password from Flightstats.

  • emanon256

    Actually, they already display the states. This is the board that shows the upgade, standby, etc info. The screens cycle through flight info, and then seats, and then stand by lists, etc.

  • Daddydo

    Never leave the gate within 1 hour of the flight ! Wow are these inexperienced travelers or what. Commuter gates are nasty, but a good travel agent would have given them prior advise as how to handle the situation. In the airline industry, it has always been Charlie West and Charlie South, but gate agents are no longer into that lingo. This is where the airline industry is falling apart. The number of people that fly into Bridgeport WV when they belong in CT is amazing as Bridgeport is really CKB (North Central WV Airport). It is really the travelers responsibility to keep up with their personal agenda.

  • guest

    respectfully then, what is the point of a delay notification? If we’re not supposed to use this information?

  • adventurebaby

    Update to my own comment: I had not seen the OP’s later message clarifying that the flight numbers had been incorrect and half a dozen other people also missed the flight. That certainly changes my view that it was the OP’s own fault. However, being delayed for 6 hours is not tragic – really rather normal and not due major compensation. But, they should compensate everyone equally, which looks like they did not.

  • TonyA_says

    Ask Congress, they made the law 14 CFR 259.8.
    See my response to Jeanne below.

  • Chris Johnson

    Those electronic signs that show the flight and time of departure at the gate are completely unreliable, misleading and in many cases useless. Not suggesting that is the passengers’ problem, it shouldn’t be, but that’s been my general experience, especially with certain airlines I won’t name here. That’s because the electronic signs are controlled by the gate agents and no one else, and if the gate agents don’t keep them updated, well, they are wrong. Of course, I don’t know what the passengers are ultimately supposed to do about any of this – there was a time when I was waiting for a flight in Newark and the electronic gate signs, overhead monitors, automated phone number and website all gave different information about the flight. All you can do to be sure is to actually speak to a human about the flight’s status, and those humans at the gate or check-in desks are often overworked and not always available to speak to you. But the airline should ultimately take responsibility for unreliable information being posted – we as passengers and customers shouldn’t have to make educated guesses.
    Here’s where I’m confused – if the Shah’s flight was actually NOT delayed and left without them, why did they get automated emails saying it was delayed? I guess that’s just another type of electronic communication from the airlines we can’t rely on either. Pisses me off to no end. The airlines have got to communicate better.

  • TonyA_says

    Great pic!

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott


  • Chris Johnson

    I agree with your last sentence more than anything – that is just unacceptable no matter how you look at it. Unfortunately, it seems like you ultimately have to verify a flight’s status with a human being to know what the hell is going on – the information given out by the airlines electronically is completely unreliable. Not the way it should be and not always feasible either, but it is what it is. Maybe a class action lawsuit or something would force the airlines to be better with communication although I don’t know how you’d organize something like that.

  • TonyA_says

    OK here is what happened:

    (UA) United Airlines 5738 Departure Details
    Scheduled Departure: 12:18 PM – Fri Apr-26-2013
    Actual Departure: 12:14 PM – Fri Apr-26-2013

    Apr 26 11:54 AM Airline Time Adjustment
    Estimated Gate Departure Changed From 04/26/13 12:18 PM To 04/26/13 12:45 PM

    Apr 26 12:26 PM Airline STATUS-Active
    Actual Gate Departure Changed To 04/26/13 12:14 PM

    So to comply with 14 CFR 259.8, United did send notification for the 11:54AM (IAD time) planned departure time to 12:45PM.

    But that is PLANNED and can change so people need to read the electronic board (the one Emanon has a pic of above).
    When the schedule changes again (and it is not a delay or cancellation), the carrier does not have to notify you by text, phone, etc. At least the law does not require them to.

    In this case, it did and the airplane left a bit early.

  • Joe Farrell

    Moral of the Story? Next time, PAY ATTENTION.

    It is regrettable that he was ticketed to CRW and not CHS.

  • TonyA_says

    A lot of people do not understand the flight schedules are NOT CERTAIN. They change all the time. So pay attention folks :)

  • Mama2tnt

    Nearly every flight I’ve ever caught somehow ends up at a different gate from what my ticket AND the flight monitors AND the ticket agents tell me, and usually that means I’m in line for a flight to Salt Lake City, Utah – the absolute last place I’d ever want to go. I’ve decided the SLC thing must just be my karma, and learned long ago to get to the airport early enough to change gates several times.

  • TonyA_says

    Class action lawsuit? You really need to read up on why the airlines send messages and make robo-calls in the first place.
    They would NOT have done that (spend more money) unless they were forced (required) to.
    Used to be, everyone took the latest and greatest info by looking up at the monitor.
    Now they are getting (often mixed) signals or information from other devices.
    Just go to the gate and look at the monitor. That has the latest schedule from the airline’s flight ops.
    Better stick around the gate area because it can change abruptly.

  • Helio

    There are at least 20 Portland’s in US, according to Wikipedia… No surprise (to me) finding a couple of Charleston’s.

  • y_p_w

    Especially when there are equipment delays, I’ve heard of cases where two flights to the same destination are departing around the same time almost next to each other.

    Years ago United and other airlines used to run SFO-LAX shuttles on the hour 24 hours. That must have been fun trying to sort out which flight, which of course only requires the flight number to actually sort it out.

  • JenniferFinger

    Well, the gate agent was very unhelpful by just shrugging and not explaining to them that this was the wrong flight (if that’s truly what happened). At the very least s/he should have done that. And claiming something called a “compensation matrix” limits what they can do for them with no further explanation doesn’t work either. But I’m surprised myself that the OP didn’t himself double check the flight number to make sure he was trying to get on the right flight. So I’m not sure what you can do for them beyond what they’ve gotten, Chris, besides maybe get them an apology from United for the gate agent and the “compensation matrix” non-explanation.

  • gg

    And using Airport codes. Air France has flights departing to CDG from JFK within an hour of each other. To make matters worse, boarding times overlap as well.

    Just got off a domestic flight in India: They scream for the missing passengers over the PA until they can find them. Would have worked well for OP.

  • Dutchess

    Yeah, I was wondering why the missing passenger names weren’t announced, especially if they were checked in and at the gate area.

    This is why I listen to my music or movie with only one earphone in, I would hate to miss an important announcement. Of course, I’m completely neurotic and check the monitors (or my phone) obsessively for flight details/updates. Nothing ruins a trip faster than missing a flight.

  • emanon256

    I have many United delay messages in my voice mail, I decided to listen to a few, and they all say the following transcribed verbatim:

    Hello, This is United Airlines calling with a flight status notification. Due to a #Reason# United flight ##### to #Airport Name#, on #Date# may experience delays. The flight is currently scheduled to depart #Airport Name# at #New Time# out of gate #Gate# and arrive in to #Airport Name# at #New Time#. Gates may change, so be sure to check at the airport before departure. Its important to know that this is an estimated time and the flight could leave earlier.

  • emanon256

    See my reply above (or below depending on your settings) to Jeanne. I transcribed the flight status message UA uses.

  • emanon256

    The notification does specify that the fligth may still leave earlier.

  • TonyA_says

    Can’t be any clearer :)
    You must have seen a ton of this during your road warrior days.

  • Michael__K

    If you want to be technical, I don’t believe 14 CFR 259.8 was ever applicable here. The notification was for a 27 minute delay, and the minimum requirement of that law is to notify passengers of “a delay of 30 minutes or more.”

    Regardless, just because something isn’t covered in this particular statute doesn’t mean it’s not an “unfair and deceptive practice.”

    Notifying all the passengers AFTER scheduled boarding time that the flight is going to be delayed by 27 minutes — and then leaving 4 minutes early — apparently without any new notification or any airport-wide announcement seems pretty unfair and deceptive to me.

  • TonyA_says

    But that is why they do it whether you believe me or not.
    It is a pure CYA.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Washington, in keeping with AP style, refers to Washington, D.C. I’m sorry if you were confused.

  • EdB

    Just out of curiosity, what is the style for referring to the State?

  • Michael__K

    Sure, I can buy that the original objective was CYA. But their protocol (or their execution of that protocol) needs some re-work because the scenario here was counter-productive even from a CYA perspective.

  • pauletteb

    I’m always suspicious of after-the-fact “clarifications.”

  • TonyA_says

    As you said earlier, the call was made after check in time :)
    You know how many calls I have from Cathay Pacific after I have boarded in JFK. Some calls and text I get when I arrive in HKG already.
    This notification stuff is their answer to the DOT’s rule.
    They are not going to put more brains and money behind this.
    Every additional rule by the DOT can cause confusion or undesired results. This is one of them.

  • Michael__K

    This rule has only been in place since 2011/2012, right? I’ve received a few false delay notifications before that…

  • LFH0

    The part of the story I’m having difficulty with is that while Mr. Shah, his family, and others destined for S.C., were all at the shared departure gate, no one heard an announcement as to the boarding of the S.C. flight, but all heard an announcement as to the boarding of the W.Va. flight. Do Commutair and ExpressJet each have separate gate agents, with Commutair making proper formal announcements, and ExpressJet doing something less formal? Something just doesn’t fit when all the passengers are at the departure gate, and yet the flight leaves without them.

    (It might also behoove carriers who load multiple flights from a single gate to post, on the tarmac next to each aircraft, the flight number and destination of each. That way people waiting in the gate departure lounge can visually verify if a particular flight is loading, notwithstanding information on a departure monitor. I don’t know if commercial aviation regulations or practicability would impede such practice.)


    Carrier gate personnel are not infallible, and departure monitors are not all perfect. I remember a good many years ago being at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport with a ticket on a local Delta Air Lines flight to Atlanta, Ga. I recall that the itinerary of the flight was Dallas – Shreveport – Monroe – Pensacola – Atlanta. But since the departure monitors and the flights boards at the departure gates only had space for three stops, the final destination of the flight was not shown on any of the departure monitors or the flight board at the departure gate. I was not deterred since I was able to use the flight number (and the intermediate stops) to ascertain the proper departure gate. Yet when I presented my ticket to the gate agent, her first reaction was that I was attempting to board the wrong flight. I admonished her to check the Delta Air Lines timetable, and after a few seconds the gate agent relented and said, “Oh yes, we are flying to Atlanta.” It was no big deal to me, and perhaps I was the only through passenger. But I could certainly see a less knowledgeable or less assertive passenger being intimidated from boarding, and “missing” the flight while being at the proper departure gate.

  • Chris Johnson

    TonyA, I know a class action lawsuit on this will never happen or get very far in court. I get it. But I don’t get as to why the OP was called and texted to be told that their flight was delayed, when their flight was in fact on time(that is unacceptable).
    Secondly, although you’ll probably say otherwise, I know for a fact that the monitors at the gate are not always reliable and you have to speak to a human to know the status of the flight. Those monitors are only as good as the people who update them – it has been my personal experience that there is wrong information on the gate monitors and the people at the gate told me “we’re supposed to update them, but we were busy and didn’t have the time to”.

  • TonyA_says

    The rule made the notification MANDATORY but many airlines were already using the computer telephony application before that. I used to work in the telephony area so I have a good idea how crazy it is. Don’t expect brilliance when the purpose is CYA, ok :)

  • $16635417

    I’d like a flight to Springfield please.

  • Michael__K

    Just sayin’ it doesn’t work so well even for the intended CYA purpose ;)

  • TonyA_says

    Look at the time of departure 12:14PM. They probably started boarding at maybe 20-30 minutes prior so give or take 11:45- 11:55AM.

    But the planned Time Adjustment was only made at 11:54AM so the call must have been made AFTER that (and while they were already supposed to be boarding).

    Confusing SURE !!! But that is what happens when you have an asynchronous process out there. The outbound notifier is triggered by a planned rescheduling event so the calls go out (from some far away place). Something very different can be happening at the gate.

    You layer more and more complexity over what used to be a simple system (watch the gate).

  • $16635417

    Talk about confusing and mixed signals. I was traveling last Friday. I noticed passengers on another flight all line up with their smartphones at the gate podium to ask the agent about “the indefinite delay” on their flight. The gate agent seemed a bit surprised and said let me check and sure enough their was an “indefinite delay” that had just posted. He made a call and found out the crew had been moved off of that flight and put on another one. (Please keep in mind there was some poor weather in Chicago that afternoon.) Since there was an “indefinite delay” some of the passengers became demanding and wished to be re-accommodated onto the subsequent flight after that one which still showed on time.

    He suggested to the passengers to wait until they had a “definite” delay time, but several refused and insisted to be rebooked.

    Sure enough about 5 minutes later the “indefinite delay” became a “definite delay” of only 20 minutes as they juggled crews.

    The people that insisted on being moved were now rebooked back to this flight…except for the ones that left the gate area. Some of those people were pretty upset when their upgrade was now given to someone else on the list. :)

  • Londoner1936

    Yes, two of the Portlands are the largest cities in their respective states (Maine and Oregon). You check the airport codes, do you not? At ORD there is a possibility of two departures for both of the Portlands leaving in the same time frame, I would guess. Do not try to get on a plane for PDX if you want to go to PWM

    And the same for the Charlestons, the two involved in this story are not little obscure burgs – one is a state capital and the other a very historic city. Does no one know any geography, or think about these things … I voted no: pay attention, Mr. and Ms. Shah when you are at the airport, check your tickets for the airport codes and flight numbers, please …

    By the way, do any of these people ever fly into our out of a Canadian airport: you need to be able to distinguish your YYZ, from YVR or YUL and so forth. It ain’t hard to do this.

  • TonyA_says



  • Londoner1936

    You did not know there were two Charlestons? Did you know there are two Las Vegas; luckily the one in New Mexico does not have air service, or it might look a little more prosperous with mistaken travelers arriving by the plane load.

  • TonyA_says

    Hey it is CYA so the last letter says what to expect :)

  • TonyA_says

    The poor girl in the desk does not control these events and many events are happening in real time. This is due to the stochastic nature of airline travel. Many people think just because they can afford a smartphone and a data plan that they can use the garbage data they get. Some stories reinforce that crazy belief and I wanna get ahead and be first attitude (like high frequency trading). I say just be patient and the good people will solve your problem.
    Air Travel used to be a lot more simple when we just followed what the airline airport employees told us what to do. Now many people are second guessing the workers that can help them.

  • TonyA_says

    Where do you think the monitors are connected?
    What computer is feeding those data?
    Maybe flight ops?

    Google FIDS controller or operations jobs and see how much they pay per hour. Maybe it is understandable.

  • andi330

    He wasn’t. The article clearly indicates that he had tickets for Charleston, SC. The airport monitors said his Charleston, SC flight was delayed. He got a notification from United that his Charleston, SC flight was delayed. Only problem was, it was the Charleston, WVA flight that was delayed, and United had all of their info wrong. The agent tried to blame it on the passengers until a bunch of other people who had the same problem started lining up behind him.

  • emanon256

    Actually, at all of the united hubs, the boards are controlled by the central passenger service system (PSS). The boards will sometimes change before the gate agents even get a call from ops. Its funny because I have sometimes asked the agent about a delay and possible miss-connect, and they told me there was no delay, and I show them the board, and the say, oh wow, and then their phone rings and its ops telling them of the delay.

    Now in the remote “spoke” airports, they are often still updated by the agents, in some airports they even still have to manually place the letters and times in the slots.

    However, this was at IAD, and the OP said it was the board that also showed upgrade and standby lists, so this was the one controlled by the PSS. I hate to sound down on the OP, but if the board magically changed right before their eyes when they realized they were boarding the wrong flight, perhaps they read it wrong previously. I only ay that, because I am guilty of doing the same thing, but always know its my fault, not a magic changing board.

  • emanon256

    I just want to add some advice. If you are traveling to an important event, reservation, what-not. Always fly there they day before, not the day of. That way you have time just in case something goes wrong.

  • Tincanrider

    Flight numbers folks… Flight numbers !!! not many have airports, but many states have Charleston, Greenville, Dallas, etc… Seems like the commuter type gate helped screw things up… In places like Cincinnati, I used to be totally paranoid about correct gates and flights… I lean to blaming United, Only Because those commuter gates confuse everyone

  • Sometime_flier

    Ha. Same, but most references include a city or are clear in context.

    That said, AP style doesn’t ever preclude adding something when clarification is needed. For this, either D.C. or a reference to IAD would have been better.

  • $16635417

    In my travel agent days, I routinely had people who stated they wanted tickets to go to “Florida”. When asked “what city?” on more than one occasion I got a blank stare with an “I don’t know, how many airports are in Florida? Whatever’s cheapest.”

    Even had someone who wanted to go to “Europe”, and had no idea it was a continent…thought there were only two airports “over there”. “That…and London” he said.

    I was so tempted to sell him a ticket to Iceland.

  • TonyA_says

    Hey Emanon since you are a UA flyer, question:

    Doesn’t UA issue a final boarding call?

    With that many (according to the OP) passengers with boarding passes not yet boarded, wouldn’t United start getting worried and call out names?

    How about standbys. Didn’t they possibly give away these seats if they did not respond to the final boarding call or were not in the boarding area 15 minutes prior?

    From the timing stated here and reading the flight events records, this airplane was probably boarding or close to boarding already when the call came out.

    If my flight was leaving 12:18, I would be watching with eagle eyes 30 minutes prior.

    I will even leave the lounge and be at the gate!

    Where and what could this OP be doing? The flight departure adjustment was filed 11:54 AM or 20 minutes prior to the actual date departure of 12:14PM. Since the original scheduled gate departure was 12:18PM then 11:54AM is only 24 minutes earlier. Where was the OP 24 minutes prior scheduled departure (not boarding)?

    Was the OP paying attention?

  • TonyA_says

    There were only 4 scheduled flights for gate A3 that noon to 1PM.
    Is that confusing for small commuter flights?

  • uniqueme

    Original poster again. Thanks for the research, glad you were able to find it. And if I’m reading it right, it actually jives with what happened: The board (the one Emanon posted, the one at the gate) even after the actually flight left (at 12:14) showed the flight with an estimated departure at 12:45. It wasn’t until we got in the line and tried to board (the “wrong” charleston flight) at 12:25 or so was the flight status updated to show that the flight had left 20 minutes earlier, and disappeared from the active set of flights being worked on at that gate (A5).

    Also I do understand your point about planned versus actual, which is why I kept my eye on that particular gate board (not the airport board, with all the flights). Water under the bridge at this point, but it does lead to some interesting discussion here.

  • emanon256

    UA used to have a Wiki with their policies, it was taken down post merger. I looked at the boarding call policy a few times in the past out of curiosity, and it could have easily changed since. But to the best of my memory, it went something like:

    Announce the following to Gate Area Only:
    5 Min before boarding, read baggage and group reminder script.
    Board elites based on status.
    Board by groups.
    With final group, state boarding all seats and all rows with fligth destination.

    Announce on all concourse PA
    After callign final group, announce “Now boarding all seats and all rows” with flight info, gate, and destination.
    If any PAX are missing after everyone has boarded, announce “Last and Final boarding call for” Flight info, gate, and destination.
    If time permits, call missing PAX by name and ask them to report to the gate.

    It didn’t mention standbys, but as someone who has flown standby a lot, the majority of the time I do see them call people by name before they give me a boardign pass, but that is not always the case. I am sometimes given one at T-15, but that could be due to people who never checked in as well.

    I will admit, in the commuter gates in IAD and ORD, there are often concurrent announcements being made, which are very easy to simply tune out. Also, I suspect the OP wondered away when they saw the announcement, and in some restaurants and shops you can’t hear the concourse wide announcements very well.

    I’m like you, I get to the gate probably 20 min or so before boarding, and if there is a delay, I don’t move from the gate. They really do try to still get you out on time. On soem occasions, the gate agent has announced that peopel can leave, that the flight will not be leaving any sooner, but its rare to hear that. In those cases I may wander off.

  • uniqueme

    , er 10 minutes earlier not 20.

  • Bruce Burger

    It’s annoying to not be able to count on airline-reported delays, but no one ever said air travel wasn’t annoying. You can be slightly more confident if a human says the flight won’t possibly leave before a certain time, especially if that human is at the originating airport and/or seems on top of the situation, but it’s still a gamble. A bunch of examples are at http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/american-aadvantage/1173440-do-flights-ever-get-undelayed.html ; that thread is specifically about American but I think most airlines are similar in this respect.

  • Lindabator

    Or on the part of the client. If you knew you wanted WV, you could have asked for it.

  • emanon256

    I am cracking up!!! Although Iceland is quite nice, I enjoyed my visit, this guy probably wouldn’t have.

    My old agent, who I wish would become an agent again, said she had someone complain about not being able to see the ocean from their hotel in Orlando, FL. The customer was furious about this, and believed that all city’s in Florida were on the beach.

  • TonyA_says

    Hey it was gate A3 at IAD according to the airline (not A5). A5 was your scheduled arrival gate at Charleston (SC).

    It also makes sense that the monitor may have indicated 12:45PM departure since it reflects the change they filed at 11:54AM. I am assuming that monitor is getting the same information being fed to the airport and FAA.

    However by the time you got the robo phone call, your flight was actually already boarding (per my calculations).

    In other words the activities on the gate did not jive with the PLANNED new schedules posted by the airlines. The gate personnel and the crew were still following the old original schedule.

    Please note that it was physically impossible to have your flight UA5738 depart at 12:45 using Gate A3 when another flight UA4052 was scheduled to depart at 12:45 using the same gate. It was possible they told you that your flight was rescheduled for 12:45 and was moving to gate A5, but I did not see any gate change record for that.

    Yes I will agree that the notification you got was very confusing.

    Actually it was better if it was never sent at all.

    But if you read my post about the reason why airlines send notifications in the first place, then you would not put that much reliance on them.

    It would be interesting to find out how the rest of the passengers made it to flight UA5738. How were they able to board on time and you weren’t?
    Where they also looking at the same monitors? Got the same call?
    What did they do differently from you? Something went right for them.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Wonder who the heck is downvoting fairly innocuous statements? Oh well.

    In the OP’s defense, how many times have we readers asked Chris Elliott for more information or to clarify a detail that he may have omitted in the interest of brevity?

    However, I’ve developed a burning desire to know just how it is that all the OTHER passengers, minus the few referenced by uniqueme, managed to board the plane and depart on time, if all the monitors and messages were messed up. I’m starting to think that the OP and those other people had wandered away from the gate area to grab a coffee or sandwich or something. I know commuter gates are crazy busy, but I’d think a line of people moving at the previously assigned gate at the previously assigned time would raise a suspicion that something was going on and maybe a little “additional clarification” was in order.

  • TonyA_says

    Can he spell Reykjavik?

  • TonyA_says

    What is the probability you will have 2 Charleston destinations using the same gate (A3) scheduled 23 minutes from each other by the same airline (UA codeshare) with no flights in between them (on the same gate)? You will have passengers for both flights sitting on the same waiting area outside gate A3. Boarding will be very interesting.

    Passenger who were sitting down outside gate A3 before 1154AM will be amused at the monitor :)

  • TonyA_says

    When do they start boarding for UA regionals in IAD? It is T-30 or T-20 or something earlier. The reason is the message (robo call) could not happen earlier than T-24. (1154AM to 1218PM).

    The most likely scenario was the OP was not ready to board yet and then got the message at T-24 or closer to departure. They were bummed at the robo call and probably walked off (have another beer maybe). But, the boarding continued so others were able to take the flight.
    Note that the flight departed at 1214 (early). So its possible the gate agent found no one else to board at the gate and closed the doors :)

  • emanon256

    That’s a tough question to answer. I believe the time printed on the boarding pass is currently T-25, though this has changed a lot since the merger. Pre merger it was T-20 for RJs.

    In my experience, if the plane is there early, and crew is present, and everything is ready, they try to board it at T-25 and try to get it out early because they schedule very short turnarounds on these.

    Typically, if its not the first flight of the day, the plane gets in 20-30 minutes or so before scheduled departure, and then they board closer to T-10 or T-15 at the earliest. They often still get it out on-time. My last few RJs were not first flights, and were usually delayed, but then boarded at T-10 of the original departure time and still managed to get out within 5 minutes of the original departure.

  • TonyA_says

    I don’t use IAD so I do not know what gate A3 looks like.

    But all I can say that even a small RJ with 50-60 pax trying to board there will be an obvious line in front of the gate.

    UA5837 was the first flight to use gate A3 (departure) from 12 noon to 1PM.
    In fact the last flight to use that gate was UA4056 which departed at 840AM.
    In other words that gate was all clear for the OP’s flight. If someone was sitting down there at T-30 it is hard to miss the people boarding that flight.

  • TonyA_says

    Assuming there is no gate change …
    I usually make sure I get to the gate BEFORE the crew shows up.
    When the crew boards, my anxiety goes down a notch.
    At least I know there is an aircraft and crew to fly it :)
    Being a Neurotic is good.

    For short turnaround flights, I want to be there when the aircraft arrives :)

  • Joe Farrell

    ok – so I was confused. . . moral of that? Pay attention.

    UAL doesn’t care – we’re just self loading cargo units.

  • emanon256

    The A1-A6 gates can, during busy times, have up to 6 flights at each gate (Ive seen as many as 5 personally). They are much wider than typical gates and have 6 monitors, 3 on each side, and generally two doors, they can board two flights at once at the same gate, usually they stagger them boarding a new flight every 15 minutes or so. You then go outside to get to the plane.

    It is very obvious when people line up to board as they go out into the hallways on either side of the gate. However, the PA is int he gate area, so if you are near A3, its very hard to hear the announcements in the other 5 UA A gates until they do the final boarding call that you can hear in all gates.

    If its a non-busy time, they usually just have one flight at each gate. Its a small united section with all 6 wide gates, and then there is a Five Guys and a bar and some news shop. You have to go up and over to get to the rest of the airport. Ive eaten many jalapeno cheddar burgers at that 5 Guys and am now craving one.

    Here are photos of A3 and A5. A3 is the boarding line, and A5 is a wider shot of what the gates look like. They all look the same.

  • bayareascott

    Plus, these planes are tiny and can board the entire plane in 5 minutes. If the flight is delayed, you better be sure you are close by, because once the aircraft arrives it will leave quickly!

  • bayareascott

    If the passengers are not in the gate area, then announcements will ultimately be fruitless. Could you imagine at a hub airport with dozens of flights departing within a short time frame if every name was paged throughout the entire airport?

    People simply do not accept enough responsibility for their own actions. Everything is always someone else’s fault….it certainly couldn’t be mine!

  • bayareascott

    My favorite thing is when I see someone ask an agent a question, then after they receive the answer, reply, “Are you sure?”

    If you aren’t going to believe the answer, perhaps you shouldn’t bother asking the question!

  • bayareascott

    So a half dozen people missed the flight, but everyone else boarded and flew it. It is always the people that can’t manage to be where they need to be that demand compensation. Also, getting compensation from agents at the airport is always going to be limited and inconsistent. They have limits to what they can provide, and different agents will evaluate situations differently.

  • bayareascott

    Gate agents and no one else? Not at any hub airport for any major airline I’ve ever seen.

  • adventurebaby

    too true!

  • http://gspirits.com/ Zod

    Yeah…I have to be in the “NO” column because tickets have flight numbers on them. The board also has flight numbers on it. Not paying attention to this is not an excuse. Chalk this up to a learning lesson. It is obvious the OP spent the amount of effort he felt necessary for the task at hand…which wasnt’ very much, so therefore, it must not have been that important in the first place!

  • Cybrsk8r

    I’m just amazed that there’s actually a flight to Charleston, WV.

  • $16635417

    Oh…I’ve been asked regularly to book beachfront rooms for Disneyworld vacations.

    I also had a guy get mad at me when he was booked a trip to Vegas. I asked if he wanted a strip hotel and he said gruffly “I’m not going there to look at naked women!”

  • jpp42

    Tony, I disagree with “it was physically impossible to have your flight depart using Gate A3 when another flight was … using the same gate.” At these “commuter” gates, they sometimes do have multiple flights departing at the same time. There are often “sub-gates” – separate bus stops – within the bus terminal where different gate agents can board multiple flights simultaneously. I believe it’s been stated above that IAD indeed does this though please correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Cat

    I would love to give this back to the airline in the same manner. If I miss my flight I get all my money back, get to sell the seat to someone else and I will send them coupons for free neck rubs. By their own standards this would be reasonable and appropriate compensation.

  • Bill___A

    Maybe the passenger should have been paying more attention.. I don’t see how this is United’s fault.

  • TonyA_says

    Well go through many days and see if United schedules flights on gate A3 at the same time. They don’t. Why?

    Added: Even if these gates all lead to the same “cement” because you are simply walking out to the tarmac (like my local airport), I think the reason why they separate the flights by gates (even if the separation is only a few minutes) is probably boarding pass control. Note the OP’s boarding pass was rejected during the scan.

  • TonyA_says

    So Uniqueme, where were you prior to 1154AM and from 1154AM to 1214PM? Help us understand why you were not in a position to board the airplane. You can account for your whereabouts at 12:25 but that is AFTER your flight took off already.
    Also you keep on referring to gate A5 but the records shows your flight departed using gate A3. Is it possible you were at the wrong gate?
    Something is missing.

  • AirlineEmployee

    Why does UA have to “tell (the two Charlestons) apart” ? Why should UA take the blame ?
    Many passengers are in a spaced out fog…….they don’t read, they don’t listen, they don’t look, they are oblivious to what is going on around them. Little wonder they miss flights.

    1. KNOW WHERE you are going and on WHAT AIRLINE.
    2. READ your damn itinerary.
    3. Stop blaming everyone else for your neglect.
    4. BE RESPONSIBLE for your own actions.

    With all due respect, UAX flights at IAD are operated from a third world hovel area. The VENDORED OUT – not UA employees — can barely speak English, let alone catch mistakes as they happen. Buyer beware and act accordingly.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    UNITED is a hopeless airline BUT why is it their fault ?

  • IGoEverywhere

    You sound like my kind of travel agent. (assumption) A gate at IAD is one crappy terminal for all the code share RJ’s and props. For instance a person connecting to Clarksburg WV will go to gate A-5 (maybe) and never see Clarksburg or hear Clarksburg being announced. They post and announce Morgantown, WV. My wife, an agent for 30 years would have missed her flight had I not reminded her that the flight continues on to Clarksburg. The United computers show this as a connection – NOT!. A travel agent gives good advise and lets the client know the pitfalls; that’s what still keeps us in business. It still ends up is some people were smart enough to make the correct plane, why didn’t Mo and family? I really enjoy your comments.

  • TonyA_says

    that’s what still keeps us in business

    Now that’s the real reason people use a Travel Advisor (aka agent).

    The missing component to most successful DIY is knowledge.

    Sitting down, calling, or exchanging emails with an experienced advisor can eliminate most basic travel mistakes (pitfalls).

    Personally, I do not think any travel pro should be on commission from the supplier. I believe they must be paid directly by the traveler so they represent the traveler’s best interest ONLY. I think that day will come. The sooner the better.

  • Ann

    This has left me with some questions. First is why didn’t they look at the flight number on their ticket AND at the gate? That should have shown them they were at the wrong gate.

    Second, didn’t the ticket show the gate they were supposed to be at?

    Sorry, but in this case I think the consumer is at fault.

  • Ann

    I am with you on this one!

  • sirwired

    I think LA -> Sydney has four Quantas flights that leave 5 – 10 minutes apart from each other, in a nice line across the Pacific.

  • sirwired

    The best “confused destination” I ever heard was a German student that wanted to go from Chicago to Sydney. He ended up booking a flight to Sidney, MT. He only figured it out when his planes kept getting smaller and smaller, instead of, you know, crossing the Pacific ocean.

    I work for a company that has a large facility in Rochester, MN. There are a large number of people that end up in Rochester, NY (and vice-versa.)

  • rybashka

    In the past, we’ve had a couple of incidents of travelers trying to catch a flight to Oakland, California, and winding up in Auckland, New Zealand. One college kid got a free city tour of Auckland out of it.

    Those Kiwi boarding agents and their strange accents!

  • Ian Parrish

    I’m afraid that picture makes it perfectly clear who bears the real responsibility here. Having just flown United Express out of Dulles yesterday, I will say that it is somewhat confusing, as each gate has 6 monitors or so with upcoming flights that will board through it. For example, just after announcing a delay in my Toronto flight, they boarded a flight to Burlington.

    Now, while it is confusing, they do clearly state BOTH the destination and the flight number. I just checked for today’s flights to the Charleston’s. While they are leaving at a similar time in the afternoon, they board out of widely separated gates A5 and A2 are far apart at Dulles, not really in visual or auditory range.

    It would appear to me that the Shah family just got confused and went to the wrong gate. Nice of United to reaccommodate them. Even nicer to offer them some miles. I’m afraid they don’t really deserve anything else.

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