Automatic rebooking programs can automatically wreck your vacation

by Janice Hough on March 28, 2013

United_checkin
As airlines try to automate more and more of their business, one increasing fact of life for travelers is the automatic rebooking program.

Instead of calling or lining up or even going online to have an agent rebook a flight where there has been some kind of travel disruption, travelers now get messages about possible or probable missed connections, along with a new alternate flight.

The rebooking systems are good, but by no means perfect.

I’ve received the messages when I’ve actually missed a connection or had a canceled flight, but other times I’ve been able to make my connection because the conning flight was also delayed. These programs aren’t sophisticated enough to consider if a second flight is on time. You have to do this yourself when you land.

Airlines laud these programs as a time-saver and improvement for clients. Of course, what they are is a money-saver; in theory it means less humans involved in the rebooking process.

My clients on Saturday had just over an hour connection in Denver to Salt Lake City for a ski trip. Unfortunately, while it was the third day of spring, it was also the day of a major Colorado snowstorm.

Their plane from Dulles was delayed by the snow, but their connection turned out to be the only flight to Salt Lake City that was on time all day. While it was a family of five (one of whom was a top level elite United flier), they missed their connection by about 10 minutes.

United sent them an automatic rebooking message for the next available flight, which happened to be about 28 hours later. An agent meeting the flight said there was nothing else available.

Had they accepted United’s offer, it would have meant finding a couple of hotel rooms and losing a day of an expensive prepaid condo rental (with no guarantee of any compensation).

When they contacted me, I waitlisted other United flights, and eventually found seats on Frontier Airlines late that night, which would mean at least 8 hours in Denver, but would be better than losing an entire day. However, we had no sense of whether or not United would allow the change.

Then, while checking the standby list on United.com, all of a sudden a sold-out flight about two hours later showed “available.” I tried to request seats, and actually got five of them.

At the United Club, an agent initially expressed skepticism that they would have reservations on the flight, since it was full, but when confronted with a confirmation number, eventually issued them boarding passes.

(We still don’t know exactly what happened. It’s possible that some passengers who were at the airport earlier got my clients’ seats as standbys on the earlier flight, and that seats very briefly went into availability. None of the individual waitlists I had set up on the flight I ended up booking ever did clear either.)

The travelers were worried that the flight was now very overbooked so got to the gate early, but curiously enough, not only was there no problem with their seats, my client texted me that he counted five MORE empty seats on the plane.

Those empty seats may well have been the result of others whose late arriving flights meant missed connections, but whatever the reason, this almost certainly means that other passengers who meekly accepted the rebooking solution offered by United spent the night in Denver unnecessarily.

Now, with or without a travel agent or another way to rebook flights, there isn’t a guarantee that there will be a better option than an automatic program.

But the programs don’t waitlist, they don’t look for other airline options and they don’t keep checking back to look for cancellations. In addition, rebooking programs don’t check alternative nearby airports — say, JFK for Newark or Washington National compared to Dulles.

Moreover, in my experience, passengers who question the options are often flatly told that they have the best alternative flight and are discouraged from standing by or waitlisting other options.

It’s not just a customer service issue. In the case of my clients, seats ended up empty while many passengers had to overnight in Denver. Even if United didn’t pay for their hotel and meals, having the plane full would have meant five more seats to sell the next day.

Airport operations are an inexact science and I have some sympathy for airlines trying to do the best they can with delays and cancellations. No doubt the machines do speed up the process when the next flight is both relatively soon and available.

But when faced with a machine-generated alternative that’s less than ideal, my advice to travelers is get a human on your side.

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  • AirlineEmployee

    Rebook roulette – don’t settle for this – be tenacious (but nice) to agents and insist they look at other airlines, other airports, other routings. I am usually able to help at least 90 percent of irrops passengers by continuing to look through the system.

  • pauletteb

    This happened to my daughter and me soon after 9/11. Our original Qantas flight was canceled and consolidated by computer with another flight, which would arrive 2 hours AFTER our scheduled Qantas flight from Sydney to Alice Springs. Fortunately, our TA noticed the discrepancy and was able to get us on a flight that did work with our connection; unfortunately, she forgot to reset our seat assignments, which had disappeared with the original flight’s cancellation.

  • Graham

    Waitlist programs don’t work the way most people seem to believe. What actually happens is that the PNR that has been waitlisted gets put into a queue. Every so often (precise times vary for all sorts of reasons) the system comes to the queue and looks at each PNR there in turn and checks if space is available. In the meantime, someone cancelled a seat. That seat goes into availability. If you get there before the automated system then the seat is yours and the automated system says “no luck this time” and puts the PNR back on the queue to be tried again later when it gets back to the top.

  • janice

    Airline employee, wish there were more of you. So many cutbacks at the airports it’s really hard to find humans without a long line except in the clubs.

  • MeanMeosh

    I just have to ask – why would someone risk a 1 hour connection when 1) departing from an airport with a known history of delays, and 2) connecting through an airport with known seasonal weather delays (March is Denver’s snowiest month)? I never understood why so many are willing to play roulette with a tight connection rather than spend an extra hour or two in the airport. Yes, it’s boring, but it beats missing a day of vacation or a business meeting because you miss your connection!

  • TonyA_says

    Graham, 2 points to add:
    (1) The client had a party of 5 (pax) trying to reschedule the same day on a regional flown typically with 50 passenger CRJs. What is the probability they will get 5 seats on same day res? Very low.

    (2) Once the robo-rebooker has found 5 seats it will confirm them. Once the PNR’s segments are all confirmed then it is out of the problem list. So it does not matter if seats open again on a better flight. The search had already ended earlier.

  • bodega3

    Sometimes you don’t have any other option for later flights that would allow you a later connection. I certainly agree with always giving yourself more time rather than less if at all possible. But sadly, many shop for price and don’t do their homework for all their options. Carriers marry segments and what you see is what they want you to see. In my GDS I can often long sell segment by segment and still get the lower price along with more connecting time which you can’t do with any online portal.

  • TonyA_says

    But reading through the article and doing some research (which could have been avoided if Janice simply gave us the flights), I assumed he took his family (party of 5) on this itinerary:
    UA560 23MAR SA IAD DEN 1221P 219P A320
    UA6441 23MAR SA DEN SLC 318P 448P CRJ

    I am not a high level elite, but at least I have the common sense to opt for a nonstop flight when I have my whole family with me. Why didn’t he take this instead:

    UA645 IAD SLC 540P 839P A320

    It was already snowing in Denver the night before. And it snowed all through the morning (sometimes heavy) till afternoon (approx 2pm) of the 23rd.

    UA560 connection to UA6441 was doomed as early as 836AM on the morning of 23MAR. Simple reading the events timeline of that flight will tell anyone that FAA already was doing some kind of ground delay. If the high elite member was monitoring his flight,he would have known that. Why didn’t he call his TA earlier?

  • TonyA_says

    Especially on regional flights with limited seat capacity !!!
    He expects to get 10% of the seats in Y. Gimme a break.

  • TonyA_says

    Janice, could you please explain what exactly happened.
    Based on my understanding of the story, you (the TA) had ownership of his PNR.
    When he called you, you added several waitlisted DEN-SLC segments to his itinerary (none of which cleared).

    Later you saw a flight with 5 available seats (not sure what booking class) so you “sold” those segments (on the same PNR) and got an HK (holding confirmed) status on them (hence a confirmation number).
    Passenger went to counter and demanded to get their tickets re-synced and boarding pass issued.

    Is this what happened?

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