LIHUE — Over a week before a video surfaced of a man being dragged off a United Airlines flight went viral, a California man experienced a similar situation from the same airline before he departed Kauai.
“It didn’t escalate to the point I was physically removed from the plane — only threatened with it,” said Geoff Fearns, a 59-year-old man from Orange, California, who was on the island for business when he had to leave a day short of his visit for a family situation.
Coincidentally, his afternoon flight from Lihue to Los Angeles was on April Fool’s day.
Fearns booked a first-class ticket with United, got on board, was seated, was served orange juice and was approached by a gate agent 15 minutes after boarding.
“The gate agent came in and said, ‘Are you Geoff Fearns?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ She said, ‘Well, you’ll have to deplane immediately. We oversold first class and we have a priority list. Regrettably, you’re on the bottom of it.’”
Fearns, president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, stood his ground.
“It seems to me it’s more of a problem for those who are not boarded yet,” he said.
The agent told Fearns he needed to get off the plane.
He said she turned around and walked away.
Five minutes later, the agent returned and told Fearns he needed to deplane; otherwise, she would call security to have him escorted off.
“Well, at 59 years old, I’m not going to wrestle around with a security team,” he said. “I said, ‘I want to make it very clear, I’m leaving involuntarily. I’m leaving under protest. I don’t think you have any right to do this.’”
Fearns exited the plane and returned to the gate area.
The agent later told him a seat was available in economy class and he took it.
“In no time did they ask for volunteers. They never offered compensation to anybody,” he said. “It was just, this is the way it’s going to be: do it or we’ll basically enforce it.”
United Airlines did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a March Air Travel Consumer Report by the U.S. Department of Transpiration, United Airlines ranked No. 6 out of 12 airlines that denied boardings due to overbooked flights from October to December 2016.
Of the 22.3 million enplaned passengers on United Airlines, about 15,000 voluntarily deboarded and 891 involuntarily deboarded flights. The numbers are down from last year’s figures of 18,700 voluntary deboardings and 1,475 involuntary deboardings.
Hawaiian Airlines had the least amount of deboardings with 126 voluntary and 19 involuntary out of 2.6 million enplaned passengers.
The policies themselves are a little surprising, Fearns said.
“Beyond that, the attitude, the cavalier way and dictatorial way these folks treat you is really shocking,” he said. “I could have caught a Delta flight a few hours later if I knew what the situation was going to be. My wife said, ‘If you just held out for five minutes longer, that could have been you and that would have been your shot at fame.”
Fearns wrote a letter to the CEO after the flight, saying the way he was treated was “indefensible.”
“I got a response from customer care saying, ‘We’re sorry you were disappointed with your experience and we’re sorry your disappointment led to a less than satisfactory encounter with our gate agent,’” he said. “It was condescending.”
Fearns said he’s never flying with United again.
“The reality is that’s just the way the airline treats people,” he said.