A couple flying to Costa Rica from Houston for their wedding claims United Airlines had a federal marshal remove them from the flight before take-off on Saturday due to a dispute about their seats.
Michael Hohl and his fiancé, Amber Maxwell, were connecting on United Flight 1737 through Houston to Liberia, Costa Rica and told KHOU that they boarded the plane last and found someone already napping in their seats.
Rather than ask the man to move or ask a flight attendant to have him to do so, Hohl said the couple instead sat in empty seats three rows up.
"We thought not a big deal, it's not like we are trying to jump up into a first-class seat," Hohl told KHOU, "We were simply in an economy row a few rows above our economy seat."
But the seats the couple chose to sit in were upgraded "Economy Plus" seats, which offer extra legroom and are only available for free to high tier passengers in United's loyalty program or to passengers who pay an extra fee.
A flight attendant asked the couple to return to their assigned seats. Hohl said that after asking for an upgrade, the couple complied with the flight attendant's demand, but a U.S. Marshal boarded the plane and asked the couple to get off.
He Said, She Said
United Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration have a different version of the incident.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Michael McCarthy confirmed to NBC that no federal marshals, nor any TSA officers, were involved in this incident.
In a statement, United said that the couple was offered the opportunity to pay the difference in fare, but they declined and would not follow crew member instructions to return to their assigned seats.
"The couple was asked to leave the plane by our staff and complied," the airline added, and was offered a discounted hotel rate for Saturday evening and rebooked on a flight Sunday morning.
Hohl and his then-fiancé are unhappy with the way they were treated by the airline.
However, in this case, "the flight attendants were just doing their job," said George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com, "I have seen passengers reseating themselves in seats they didn't pay for, and it doesn't seem fair." Nor does it seem fair, he said, to put flight attendants in the position of having to police the cabin for passengers who have switched seats.
Moving into empty, higher priced seats at sporting events and theaters is not uncommon, but "United is not the villain here, the airline was completely within its rights," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel expert and principal at Atmosphere Research. "Passengers can be removed from a flight if they deliberately disobey crew instructions and the flight attendant did exactly what they should have done, as they were trained."
A big piece of the puzzle may be missing from this story, said veteran flight attendant Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet, who notes that reports so far say the couple was repeatedly told to return to their seats.
"The word repeatedly is a big red flag. We have a lot to deal with during boarding. Like, moving families together, finding room for luggage, wedding dresses, wheelchairs, guitars, dealing with people who can't sit in middle seats or don't want to sit next to a child, a large person, a smelly person, an emotional support animal, etc. We don't have time to ask the same people to do the same thing multiple times during boarding."
The States of United
This latest incident may be getting attention because United Airlines is in the spotlight after its mangled response to a viral video showing security officers at Chicago's O'Hare airport dragging a bloodied passenger off a United Express flight.
"No matter what happens at the airline, whether trivial or substantial, United will get more media coverage than may be justified because of the radioactive residue from the incident on flight 3411," said Harteveldt.
While United has repeatedly apologized to David Dao, the passenger dragged off the United Express flight, and promised customers and employees that it will "fix what's broken so this never happens again," getting out of the spotlight will be difficult, but not impossible.
"The airline must deliver on its stated promise to publicly report by April 30 on the changes it will make to its involuntary denied boarding processes and procedures," said Harteveldt, and, "To its credit, United has already begun to share some of the changes it is making."
Rehabilitation after a stumble "is almost always a possibility" said Douglas Quinby, Vice President, Research at Phocuswright, but the airline will need to improve both its operational performance and customer service, and be honest.
"I always admired Ryanair and Spirit — cheap tickets and crappy service," said Quinby, "But they were honest about it, and never tried to dress it up in corporate marketing speak."