Stranded in a storm — why a travel agent might be your best chance to get home

by Janice Hough on August 29, 2011


All U.S. domestic airlines, eventually, ended up offering waivers to change flights this past weekend with Hurricane Irene. In many cases, travelers had no choice — their flights were canceled. Some of those flights were automatically rebooked, sometimes not.

But the waivers were small comfort to passengers who couldn’t reach their airline or who got to the airport only to find lines that stretched around the terminal. Those who went online and either didn’t like their rebooked flights, or saw that they weren’t given any options weren’t happy either.

A local San Francisco news channel on Saturday night showed many travelers preparing to sleep in line. Some of those interviewed told the reporter they had already been there for hours.

As the hurricane approached, there was always the option for anyone who’d booked on line to book a new ticket (if they could find one) and to try to change their own flight. But in many cases, even those who could find new flights still found themselves needing to get in line or call to have the ticket reissued.

American Airlines actually automatically exchanged some canceled tickets according to what their computer chose as backup. This was a great service for those who liked the alternatives offered.

The problem, however, was for passengers who didn’t want that automatically-booked alternative. Because the ticket was then completely in American’s control, further changes, by anyone, became almost impossible.

But during this mess, travel agents were also able to access alternative flight inventory and had the same waiver policy. Travel agents had the ability to reuse issued tickets so a passenger could get an advance boarding pass and skip the long check-in lines completely.

In one case, I reissued a ticket from Philadephia to San Francisco four times, as the flights kept getting canceled. Eventually, the client made it home for his cousin’s wedding.

In addition, with some airlines, especially United/Continental and US Airways, agents were able to rebook with partner carriers.

Before I get a lot of comments about stupid travel agents, I admit, not all agents know what they are doing. This is true of any profession, and particularly perhaps those without strict licensing requirements.

Plus, not all agents are good at booking airline tickets. Someone who may be great at planning a day-to-day itinerary in Tuscany may not understand the nuances of code shares and reading flight information.

Additionally, not all agents are accessible after hours; but many are (usually for a fee). Curiously enough, this weekend storm, individual agents, while perhaps not available 24/7 were often a better option than the nationwide airline help desks. One very good tour operator I deal with had 45-minute and longer waits on their emergency line.

Remember, travel agents can only change their own tickets. Passengers who thought when booking that they could book the ticket without a service fee and then called agents after the fact, were out of luck, unless they wanted to buy a new ticket.

Today, Hurricane Irene has passed on. But, the backlog is likely to continue for a while. (One client I rebooked from Saturday had US Airways offer him a flight home from Charlotte on Wednesday.)

So what’s the solution for next time?

First, for those who somehow navigated this mess on their own, and have done so in the past, if it works, great. But for those who had or are still having a nightmare time of it, ask around for a good travel agent.

Sometimes corporate travel agencies will do personal travel, so that’s a possibility for referrals — for those happy with their business travel arrangements. Ask friends and colleagues who are reporting stories of how they got bailed out during the storm, for the names of their travel agent.

For anyone trying to make the acquaintance of a new agent, be warned, as the travel industry tries to pick up the pieces (and sort out the paperwork) the day after a storm weekend might not result in the fastest callback.

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  • Bodega

    I was one of those passengers and I am a TA.   I had called my carrier the night prior to heading to the airport a day earlier than my scheduled departure, found out they would even fly me out of another airport than the one on my itinerary which was PHL.  All fees were being waived. Sadly I couldn’t fly out of another airport as my rental car company wanted over $900 for dropping the car off at the new departure airport, so I drove 4 1/2 hours to PHL.  When I went to the ticketing counter, I was told the same class of service had to be available and a fee collected.  Fortunately I was able to put on my TA hat and let them know the new rules, which I found out that the two ticketing agents at that counter hadn’t read the morning briefing.  I came to my own rescue! 

  • Anonymous

    Our agency started re-accommodating leisure passengers on Thursday.  Everyone go out this weekend who needed to and everyone got home yesterday.  It was a matter of moving people from Saturday to Friday or earlier flights on Saturday and moving people coming home to later flights on Sunday.  We had exactly one cancellation – a cruise out of Cape Liberty today -  because of canceled flights there was no way to get the client there.

  • Anonymous

    I am in that messy position right now — been trying to reschedule a ticket for a whole family of people going overseas on an emergency family trip. What a nightmare! I’ve definitely been trying to get our travel agent to help us navigate the backlogged mess, but so far, no progress.

    I’m not a super-avid flyer, usually clocking no more than 1 or 2 overseas flights a year, so was wondering if any of you savvy folks who are way more seasoned with airlines and flying would be able to offer any help or advice — I greatly appreciate it! :)

    My situation is the following:
    My family and I booked multiple tickets with a travel agent to fly via China Eastern Airlines (only direct flight I could find) from NYC (JFK airport) to Shanghai (PVG), set to take off last Saturday, August 27th at around 4 pm. Due to the hurricane, all flights were canceled for that weekend.

    We’ve been calling all China Eastern Airlines headquarter #s in both NYC and Shanghai, but it sounds like we’re pretty much out of luck — the earliest flight out that they can “squeeze us in” for seems to be September 2nd… My family is going overseas due to an urgent family situation, so that’d be entirely too late, unfortunately. The airline, so far, is not offering increased flights to accommodate all the displaced passengers from the weekend, and instead, we’re left to fend
    for ourselves by trying to “squeeze in” to leftover spots on heavily booked flights. In essence, we have to be on stand-by, but with a family of people, it’s looking pretty difficult. We asked if they could try and send us to another airline, since they are unable to accommodate us by offering any flight, but they said that was not possible.

    Really in a pickle here. Any of you informed folks able to offer any insight or advice? Any help is GREATLY appreciated — many thanks, in advance! :)

    ~Iris

  • Bodega

    How did you book this travel?   Keep in mind that this carrier doesn’t have a large presence here in the US with extra planes to use.  My sympathies to you for your urgent needs.  Are you close to JFK where you can go to the ticketing counter and deal with someone face to face?  You have to be prepared to make a decision on the spot, especially since you have many traveling.  You might have to split up the family to get there.  One or two persons to reaccommodate is easier than larger numbers

  • Anonymous

    Well, they’re not going to add flights – they’re not in a position to pay for or even get additional slots.

    You (or the agent you bought the tickets from) should have been working on protecting this back on Thursday.  Waiting for the weekend is entirely too late.  And China Eastern presumably has no arrangements with any other airline so they won’t be writing your ticket over to any other airline. I think you are stuck with their protection or taking a refund.  They’re certainly not going to boot someone off an earlier flight who was confirmed in order to fit you in.   Have you considered splitting the family so that those who must be there earlier can be there?  Perhaps there are one or two empty seats available on an earlier date, but now, Monday, it is most likely too late to even do that.

  • Anonymous

    I see that we think alike, Bo, but we often do, don’t we?

  • Anonymous

    Hi there, Bodega. Thanks for the quick response! :} 

    After many many many calls, I finally heard some welcome news (well, we’ll see how it pans out, anyway ;)) — we can go JFK and be on standby. They expect there to be room to accommodate us, so hopefully, all goes well. 

    Goodness, what a week, and it’s not even over yet! Haha! Earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and flight madness, in under a week, hahaha. 

    Thanks so much Bodega for your response. :} Happy flying for all!

  • Anonymous

    Hi dcta. Thanks for your response. :) 

    Yes, we were very concerned about the inclement weather, so we did contact our travel agent well in advance of the weekend hurricane. She said that it was (of course) hard to predict whether the weather (oo, hehe) would allow our flight to take off, but in any case, she couldn’t get us all seats for another flight. On Thursday, it was still hard to know how it was going to affect our flight — even up until the day of our departure, all of CE’s flights were able to take off — ours was the first cutoff. What can ya do, right? 

    We also mentioned that if need be, we could split up part of the family (with two elderly members in need of care, it was not possible to split up further), but our options were still lacking. Thankfully, looks like CE was able to have two(?) additional flights added on tomorrow, so hopefully, the outlook is good! :}

  • Bodega

    Good luck.  If the flights haven’t been full and if others are getting refunds, you may all get on, but do allow yourselves to be flexible.   

  • Tony A.

    If this article is correct, then your TA should be able to display seat availability on MU’s (China Eastern) flights in the near future. However, I hope (but doubt) MU has issued a system wide WAIVER CODE to deal with the ticket reissue.

    That said, we also don’t know if MU will allow the more “expensive” routing for your type of tickets. If you look closer at the routing rules of MU fares from JFK to PVG, the cheaper fares (lower priced fare basis codes) have a routing restriction (#3):
         3 FROM-TO  NYC-SHA* 
    That means they can only be used for *direct flights* on MU from NYC to Shanghai.
    Some of the more expensive fare basis allow a different route (C001):
      C001 FROM-TO  NYC-MU/AS/WS/US/DL/AA-LAX-SHA*                
           FROM-TO  NYC-AA-DFW/CHI/BOS-AA-LAX-SHA*                
           FROM-TO  NYC-DL-DFW/SLC/CVG/ATL-DL-LAX-SHA*            
           FROM-TO  NYC-MU/AS/WS/US/DL/AA-YVR-SHA*                
    The more expensive fares are actually CONSTRUCTED fares which will mean that the interline flights will cost MU a pretty penny. In other words, I doubt MU will be willing to route you via LAX or YVR unless you upgrade your booking class.

    If you are stuck on the NYC-SHA route, then seat availability does not look good for your family. Here is the seat inventory display of MU588 for one week. Essentially unless MU will allow to put your whole family on a waitlist and clear all of them soon, IMO you are out of luck. None of the decent priced econ booking classes have any confirmable seats:

    *** CHINA EASTERN ***
    30AUG-TU    JFK PVG   ** **
    11   MU 588 F0 P0 A. C0 J0 Z0 O0 D. JFKPVG  435P 730P#1 346
                Y0 K0 B0 E0 H0 L0 M0 N0 R0 S0
                V0 T0 G0 X0 Q0 U0 I.

    31AUG-WE    JFK PVG   ** **
    11 MU 588 F0 P0 A. C0 J0 Z0 O0 D. JFKPVG  435P 730P#1   346
              Y0 K0 B0 E0 H0 L0 M0 N0 R0 S0
              V0 T0 G0 X0 Q0 U0 I.

    01SEP-TH    JFK PVG   ** **
    11 MU 588 F0 P0 A. C0 J0 Z0 O0 D. JFKPVG  435P 730P#1   346
              Y0 K0 B0 E0 H0 L0 M0 N0 R0 S0
              V0 T0 G0 X0 Q0 U0 I.

    02SEP-FR    JFK PVG   ** **
    11 MU 588 F0 P0 A. C0 J0 Z0 O0 D. JFKPVG  435P 730P#1   346
              Y0 K0 B0 E0 H0 L0 M0 N0 R0 S0
              V0 T0 G0 X0 Q0 U0 I.

    03SEP-SA    JFK PVG   ** **
    11 MU 588 F3 P2 A. C9 J9 Z9 O1 D. JFKPVG  435P 730P#1   346
              Y9 K8 B3 E0 H0 L0 M0 N0 R0 S0
              V0 T0 G0 X0 Q0 U0 I.

    04SEP-SU    JFK PVG   ** **
    11 MU 588 F4 P7 A. C9 J9 Z9 O9 D. JFKPVG  435P 730P#1   346
              Y9 K9 B9 E9 H0 L0 M0 N0 R0 S0
              V0 T0 G0 X0 Q0 U0 I.

    05SEP-MO    JFK PVG   ** **
    11 MU 588 F4 P6 A. C9 J9 Z9 O0 D. JFKPVG  435P 730P#1   346
              Y9 K9 B9 E9 H0 L0 M0 N0 R0 S0
              V0 T0 G0 X0 Q0 U0 I.

    Your alternative is pay the difference and get routed VIA LAX  if and only if MU interline partners can get your whole family to LAX any time soon. I suppose that is also doubtful.

    PS. I’m local in NYC area so I know how difficult this is going to be. Sorry.

  • Anonymous

    If indeed they are adding two flight s- you  need to be CONFIRMED on them.  Someone needs to be doing MU on this so that when those flight come up, you are the first on them – I would suggest checking the website every 15 minutes as well as trying to call them every 30 minutes.

  • Frank

    But the waivers were small comfort to passengers who couldn’t reach their airline or who got to the airport only to find lines that stretched around the terminal. Those who went online and either didn’t like their rebooked flights, or saw that they weren’t given any options weren’t happy either.========================================================

    Interesting, I flew this weekend.  Left my Home friday, ended my trip on Sunday, couldnt get home and spent the night in a hotel at my expense.  I flew home today.  In most cases, the airports I went through “on my trip” were DESERTED.  I had 40 passengers on my flight from the midwest to the east coast on Saturday.  Sunday, I did one flight, the only flight out of that airport for the day.  I had empty seats.
    Waviers are a godsend.  I remember working flights in the eighties.  People were required to use their tickets regardless of WEATHER.  Forcing thousands of people to go to the airport and suffer through those delays and in some cases, cancellations.

    People didnt like their rebooked flights?  LOL, I was waiting for the hotel van to pick me up Sunday night.  Two passengers confronted me and said how they DISLIKED my airline.  I said, where you trying to fly today?  Northeast was their answer.  I said, ME TOO, I cant get home either and YES, even I have to get a room for the night at my expense as well.  NO ONE is getting there today.  But, Good luck getting home.

  • janice

    Frank, I get it, and none of us could fix the weather.  But in many cases the rebooked flights were 4-5 days away, where a good agent – or airline employee with time -(hah) could find something much earlier

  • Cathy

    Here’s my story — we flew to PHL on Frontier Airlines on Friday, moved our kid into the dorms at Rutgers on Saturday (was supposed to be Sunday, but Irene pushed that up a day), and had return flights on Monday morning.

    Saturday night I checked Frontier’s website and found that the first leg of our return from PHL was already listed as canceled. I immediately called Frontier and asked to be rebooked. The best they could offer was Wednesday night, more than 2 days after the original reservation. I asked about flying out of other airports — sure, as long as I was willing to pay a $700 fare differential!

    I did my own research and found:
    - Delta was flying out of BWI on Monday for $45 more than the Frontier fare I already had.
    - Hertz was waiving drop-off charges for those affected by the hurricane if they returned the car within 100 miles of the original drop-off point.
    - BWI is 101.6 miles from PHL

    I booked the Delta flights, got Frontier to refund the non-refundable return since they chose to cancel it, and decided to throw myself on the mercy of the Hertz agent at BWI (I did call them and ask them to note in the record that I’d be returning the car there).

    It was a challenge getting to I-295 with all the flooding in New Jersey, but once on the freeway, it was clear sailing to BWI. The Hertz agent there was nice enough to waive the dropoff charge, and we got home Monday night.

    I don’t think a travel agent would have been able to do better for us than we did ourselves. It did cost us a total of $90 more than we originally paid to fly home, and I definitely won’t be flying Frontier again. The overall impression from them was that they just didn’t care about the people who were stranded and they were going to follow their fare change rules no matter what!

  • Carrie Charney

    I was due to fly home on Sat. from Panama City, Panama  to Newark  On Friday, I tried online to change my Continental flight home to Mon. or Tues. I found it curious that while the screen said there was nothing available when I tried to exchange my return ticket, there were seats open if I were to purchase a new ticket. So I abandoned the computer and called the local Continental number. Within a few minutes, I had a seat for Monday and I hoped that Irene was going to clear out in time. She did. I got home, and I felt rather lucky to have enjoyed a couple of extra days in the jungles of Panama.

  • Frank

    Janice, I get it, too.  You, as a travel agent have instant access to SEAT INVENTORY (hah) if there is any to help re-accommodate your clients.  With or WITHOUT a travel agent, flying was stressful before, during and after IRENE.

  • Anonymous

    Listen, by Saturday afternoon it was too late in most cases to re-accommodate anyone before Tuesday/Wednesday.   that is why I did all my clients on Thursday and Friday PRIOR to the storm – almost every airline was already offering waivers.  Moved everyone to earlier flights than those actually scheduled – for instance IADLHR on UA scheduled for 1050pm got moved to the same day 600P.  The 600PM went, and the 1050PM was canceled.  Clients got to London for their niece’s wedding.  And believe me, that’s just one example.  All it takes is a client who is willing to listen to advice.

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