United Airlines: Sorry Grampa Can't Come To The Gate

Reader Alanna says United Airlines told her the TSA wouldn’t let her husband escort their grandkids to the gate because there was a limit on the number of gate passes available. She asked the TSA and they told her they had no such policy. Alanna wants us to know she thinks United is “unbelievably mean.”

Alanna says:

Last summer my husband were sending our grandchildren ages 10 and 12 back to Colorado after their summer visit. When we got to the airport the United representative said that they had rules from TSA Security that only one of us could go to the gate with the children, and she refused to issue a pass for my husband. He had to hang out for two hours while the three of us went to the gate. We asked a TSA guard about the policy and he said, “That’s not our policy. They (the airline) do that whenever.” !

We thought the behavior unbelievably mean. The children were very disappointed. Their dad was leaving for Afghanistan in a few weeks and they already had plenty of emotion.

Ouch. We took a look at the TSA’s website and yes, it does seem to be entirely up to the airline. The only thing we can say is that maybe the powerless United Airlines rep is tired of feeling bad about herself as her company forces her to deny dozens of nice grampas extra time with their grandkids, so she just blamed the TSA. Not that that’s a nice thing to do either.

Most travel advice sites we looked at recommend calling the airline to get the specifics of their gate pass policy before leaving for the airport. United Airline’s policy on unaccompanied minors is here, but doesn’t mention the number of gate passes available.


Edit Your Comment

  1. milkcake says:

    Hm, can I get a gate pass to accompany my non-english speaking mom?

    • spongebue says:

      Yes, generally that is ok to do. If you get turned down in a larger airport (unlikely, but this shows it’s not impossible) try another agent out of sight from your first try.

    • longdvsn says:

      absolutely. I’d maybe call in advance and tell them you’ll need a gate pass so they can note it on her ticket before you even get to the airport. But even just showing up at the airport should be fine.

  2. StuffThingsObjects says:

    I guess they were a bit flighty.

  3. IT-Princess: I work in IT, you owe me $1 says:

    If it’s up to the airline, then they have a right in my opinion to do what’s reasonable.
    2 adults for 2 minor children is beyond reasonable.


  4. SJPadbury says:

    I would think 2 tickets means 2 gate passes at the very least, but here I am using logic again…

    • hobochangbar says:

      Hindsight is 20/20 but yeah, if they’d thought to split up & each ask for one to accompany one of the kids they’d probably be fine.

  5. Amy Alkon says:

    The thing to do in a situation like this is call for a supervisor. And if that doesn’t work, the supervisor’s supervisor, and if that doesn’t work and it’s during business hours, call customer service at the airline.

    I’m guessing their dad wasn’t going to Afghanistan “for the waters.” If your dad’s in the military, we should do whatever we can to see that you spend as much time with him as is possible before he gets shipped back to a war zone.

  6. shopalooza says:

    Hmmm…. I would think they’d allow at least 1 guardian per child. Maybe they should’ve tried checking in the kids separately?

    • Running_Fool says:

      separating the PNR should’ve taken care of the issue, since the PNRs would no longer be linked they would’ve been allowed 2 gate passes. The TA was either not thinking, or lazy. But don’t worry, UA will give you 5,000 MP miles.
      Then again hindsight is 20/20.

  7. Missing in Vlissingen says:

    Unless she can sing a catchy song about her experience with United and get millions of views on YouTube, I’m not interested.

  8. doggscube says:

    In 2008 the lady at the American counter wouldn’t give me a pass to help my wife and two daughters to the gate, citing that it was against their policy to give gate passes except for helping children flying alone.

    I think the lady expected me to be a jerk, because when I said “thank you” and turned to walk away she asked for my ID and gave me the pass. It was weird. It is indeed solely at the whim of the airline.

  9. Jesse says:

    I can kind of understand the rep’s reasoning for doing that. If they had said it was company policy, there could be a potential argument to try and make an exception because, you know, everybody’s situation is special, which would slow the line down and possibly cause a big scene.

    If you just say it’s a TSA policy, people would be more likely to just deal with it. Was it nice? No. But I can see why he or she did it.

    • jaazzman says:

      Because LYING to your customers makes it all ok.

      It’s called doing your job. If you don’t like dealing with situations like this, quit.

  10. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    I had DELTA deny me (JUST ME) a gate pass for me to accompany my teenage daughter because I had not paid the “unaccompanied Minor” fee. The only option they gave was to pay their rediculous fee.

    She’s over the age for unaccompanied minor, and no other arline has ever done this to me before or since. Guess what airline I won’t book anymore?

    • outlulz says:

      If she’s over the age for unaccompanied minor then you aren’t allowed to follow her to the gate if you don’t have a ticket.

    • Gulliver says:

      So you want to NOT pay the minor fee, BUT you want to send her off like she is a minor? Make up your mind. The gate pass is not for good byes. It is for unacccompinied minors or people needing special assistance. You can’t ask for one, just because YOU want it. If she can fly alone, she can go to the gate alone

      • pot_roast says:

        This is very true. The gate pass is to assist someone, not for last minute goodbyes, unfortunately. In my airline job, we did have TSA complain because we were issuing too many gate passes. We also had them refuse multiple gate passes, saying they were going to allow one per group. It *is* up to the airline, generally, but if TSA is busy, they will bump the gate passes back…. especially when there are a bunch of people in line that showed up at the airport late and will barely make their flight. (hate those types…)

    • vastrightwing says:

      No problem. Next time you need to send her, buy yourself a fully refundable ticket for a later flight that uses the same terminal. Wave your refundable ticket at the gate keeper and they will let you slip right by along with your child. After her plane leaves, simply walk back to the ticket counter and ask for a refund. No fuss, no dirty looks or questions. It’s painless.

      You’re playing by all THEIR rules, so you should be fine.

      • mobiuschic42 says:

        My guess is you have to actually have a boarding pass to get past the gate, and that once you check in and get a boarding pass, the airline is not going to let you have a refund.

    • CoachTabe says:

      Unless she’s got some other issue you’re not disclosing, if she’s over the age for being an unaccompanied minor, you need to cut the apron strings and let your daughter go to the gate by herself. The airline was right to deny you the gate pass.

      • mobiuschic42 says:

        Uh, the first time I ever flew on a plane, I was 16. Yes, I was perfectly competent, but I hadn’t spent much time at airports before and I was a little nervous. It was also April, 2002, so security was super tight. However, the airline didn’t have any problems letting my mom take me to the gate.

        I’m going to be like the OP and mention that my dad was active duty deployed at the time, too. :)

  11. UberGeek says:

    Multiple kids were being escorted? What a game. File this one as a lesson learned and next time have each adult take one kid. Then just meet up after you have t boarding pass.

  12. erratapage says:

    I like the advice of calling the airline to get specifics about their gate pass policy in advance. My guess is that the next Consumerist post will be by someone who does this, and is still denied a gate pass. The airlines are just so arbitrary and weird about everything, and the TSA is, too.

  13. vastrightwing says:

    But don’t they have a fee for that?

  14. Hoot says:

    I didn’t even know this was possible! I would be extremely grateful.

    Also, what’s the difference between saying goodbye at the front versus goodbye at the gate? The only thing really sucky about this is that grandpa had to wait around for a few hours.

    • IT-Princess: I work in IT, you owe me $1 says:

      It’s not just a matter of saying goodbye, but spending the last couple hours with your grandchildren as they wait for their plane.

    • MamaBug says:

      10 and 12 year old children in an airport by themselves? I would want to walk them back as well. I mean, yes, they had one grandparent, so then it is a matter of spending as much time as possible with them before they leave. It was just kinda crappy on United’s part :(

  15. jackbishop says:

    Nobody’s mentioned one easy solution yet: forge internet-printed boarding passes. Producing one that’ll get you on a plane is hard; producing one that’ll get you through security is easy.

  16. Jenn98765 says:

    I might take this more seriously if it were presented in a less dramatic tone, and/or if it hadn’t happened over a year ago.

    It sounds like Alanna is angling for something, perhaps that’s not the message she intended to convey.

    • Portlandia says:

      Or if they didn’t use the completely unrelated “her dad is going off to war” line to gain sympathy card.

  17. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    Does it depend on the airport? We just get permission from TSA at the security checkpoint to wheel grandma through.

  18. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    I hope you asked TSA AFTER you left the airport. Because if you made your husband wait 3 hours after you knew there wasn’t a TSA rule…

  19. NeverLetMeDown says:

    Don’t bother with gate passes. Just book a one-way, refundable ticket (on any flight out of that airport roughly the same time as the one the person you’re accompanying is on), check in online, and then pass through security with your boarding pass. Then, once you’re through security, call the airline and cancel the ticket. You’ll get your money back.


    • benh999 says:

      Get a refund after you check-in? What airline do you fly?

      • mherdeg says:

        No, this strategy is perfectly within the rules of any mainline carrier. Usually the *threat alone* of making the agent do extra work (booking you a 1-way refundable ticket and canceling it later) is sufficient to make them take the lower-work approach (giving you a gate pass); the idea is that you prove that you’re willing to work really hard to get what you want, and you call the agent’s bluff within their system’s rules.

        There’s no difficulty refunding a ticket after checking in. The agent who processes the refund may need to cancel your check-in, but that’s straightforward (in fact, with United you can do it online).

        It may be slightly harder to refund a ticket after the scheduled departure time, so a good idea when using this strategy is to book the last flight of the night. It’s also smart to book a ticket on a flight in the same area of the terminal that your companion’s “real” flight departs from — sometimes TSA agents won’t let you behind security in (say) the A gates with a boarding pass for the un-connected B gates.

        For extra schadenfreude when using this strategy, ask *the same agent who refused the gate pass* to issue you the refundable ticket & boarding pass, and later go back and ask *the same agent* to help you with the refund.

        For maximum savings, book it online and avoid any counter booking fees — but still use the human being to cancel, if you like.

      • NeverLetMeDown says:

        Any airline. So long as the flight hasn’t actually left yet, you can cancel a fully refundable ticket. I do it all the time. Check in the day before, discover that my meeting ended early and I can catch an earlier flight on a different carrier, so buy a ticket on the earlier flight, and cancel the one I had already checked in for.

  20. PsiCop says:

    Airline personnel just LOVE to say that their asinine rules are “government regulations” or “TSA directives,” when they aren’t. Yes, it’s a quick and ready excuse tbat most passengers will buy … mostly because they don’t know any better and are intimidated by it. If enough passengers start pushing back when they do this though, perhaps it will cease being a useful evasion.

    • NeverLetMeDown says:

      Passengers will buy the claim when it isn’t true, because so many asinine regulations ARE the TSA’s fault.

  21. PLATTWORX says:

    I do agree that the TSA in every airport seems to work from another rule book.

    As an example, at our home airport the TSA screener was yelling “remove your shoes and put them in a bin for scanning.” However, at our return airport once (Vegas) the TSA screener was SNAPPING anyone who DID put their shoes in a bin with “the shoes can ride on the belt. Get them out of the bins!”

    HELLO??!?? Pick one people. Pick one policy.

    • annecat says:

      THANK YOU. That particular policy being different from airport to airport makes me crazy!

      • jenjenjen says:

        It’s the yelling that makes me crazy. It’s what makes people think TSA agents love the power.

    • arcticJKL says:

      TSA website says, “Please remove your shoes before entering the metal detector and put them directly on the belt to go through the X-ray machine instead of in a bin with your other items. It’s safe, easy, and gives us a better look at your shoes so we won’t need to rescreen them.”

      I would talk to a supervisor at your local airport.

      • Elphaba says:

        I’ve had the same problem but it was SLC telling us to put our shoes in, and Monterey yelling at us for putting them in the bin. I flew home from LAS a couple of weeks ago, and put my shoes in the bin without comment.

  22. humbajoe says:

    NOTE TO AIRLINES: Hi guys! I’ve never been on a plane or even to an airport before – we drove everywhere when I was growing up because we couldn’t afford you guys.

    Now I can absolutely afford it, but stories like this make me wonder why I should. There are many, many more like me. It’s a good thing you guys treat all of your current customers like this so that the rest of us know to never bother with your industry :D

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      If the trains were better, I wouldn’t use them either.

      • AnthonyC says:

        As would I- and I did when I lived in Boston, to go to NY.

        But now I’m in PGH. A train ride to NYC costs more than a flight and takes 9.5hrs. It’s only a 6 hour drive or a 1 hour flight.

  23. EllieM says:

    I doubt this is a United policy. Or if it is, United agents aren’t always following it. I flew last month out of O’Hare on United, and saw the agent giving gate passes to a family of 5 to meet their son who was returning from Afghanistan.

  24. RogueWarrior65 says:

    Arg…sorry but I have no sympathy. Say goodbye long before you get to security. There are enough people packed into waiting areas already.

  25. asphaltzeppo says:

    Just use Southwest if you can. My mother, sister, brother-in-law and I were all issued passes to escort my elderly uncle to the gate. At first the gate agent balked at giving all of us a pass. But then she decided on a hug fee. My brother-in-law gave her a hug and we got our passes.

  26. Carlee says:

    Check in the kids separately – 1 adult per child. Wouldn’t that have been the easiest way to get around this (supposed) rule?

  27. Elphaba says:

    Because my husband is in the service, I can get a pass to go into the back to greet him. I know it’s a privilege, and I always treat it as such. I am INCREDIBLY nice to the gate agents who give me a pass. It always gets me back, including at Orange alert when they really aren’t supposed to let that happen, I thank them. Maybe try being nice?

  28. dush says:

    People can’t even say goodbye to their grandkids and see them onto the plane anymore. Seriously, the terrorists have truly won. What a sham and a travesty all this “security” has become.

  29. sfoflygirl says:

    I find it ridiculous that Grandma would believe United is mean. They have a duty to keep non flying passengers to a minimum. I work with United and when I put my children to travel on a flight they are allowed only one person to accompany them. My hubby gets to stay at checkin or stay home. Be happy that you got to spend time with the kidlets in the first place!

  30. ciscoco says:

    I had a similarly unpleasant experience, today. My daughter checked in for her United flight from Boston to San Francisco with her 2 children, one 3 months traveling in a recommended, but heavy, infant seat and a 2 year old toddler. She also had a pocketbook, and carry-on duffel. The 2 year old had a small backpack. It’s a fair trek to the gate and it was instantly apparent that the journey would be very difficult if not impossible for one adult. We asked for a gate pass so that I (grandmother) could help them to the gate. The agent reflexively denied it and then became personal, asking my 28 year old daughter how old she was and if she wasn’t adult enough to accompany her two children herself. She never offered the option to pay for help or we would have taken it. We’re not confrontational. In the end, a family of 5 pulled up next to us complaining that our agent had just been the cause of their missed flight and she passed us off to an assistant saying “just give them a gate pass”.

    We fly a lot as a family. We’ve got lots of options. There are many people like us. United’s approach to gate passes seems pretty arbitrary from the comments I see. I know for a fact TSA is fine with our gate pass, I checked. Since United just merged with Continental and American is going through reorganization and will emerge a strong competitor, Martin Hand, VP for Consumer Experience might want to improve the experience a bit more, after all the airline industry is a model for competition theory.