United Airlines: It’s our schedule change, but you need to fix it

by Janice Hough on November 9, 2010


Airline schedule changes are an unfortunate fact of the traffic business; especially when they result in missed connections or new times that don’t work with travel plans. Why do airlines do it? Sometimes it’s an increase or decrease in demand, other times the airline wants to move their aircraft around, sometimes existing connections aren’t working.

Many travel agents and airline employees joke that scheduling is the job they give to someone who marries the airline boss’s daughter to keep him busy.

In the worst cases, a schedule change can make a trip impossible when there are no good alternatives. But even the most innocuous changes can still add a lot of hassle to a trip. And a lot of extra work for travelers and travel agents alike.

Last weekend, two clients had a weekend trip planned to see their daughter in college. They had cashed in miles for confirmed upgrades as well, way back in August.

Since then, the schedule had changed a few minutes on two of the flights, but only a few minutes, so no problem. Or, so we thought.

Until they tried to check in online late the night before the outbound flight, which had been changed from 6 a.m., to 6:01 a.m.

First, United.com gave them an error message indicating they needed to talk to a representative.

Since they were worried about the early morning departure, they called the airline. After almost an hour on hold, an agent (possibly in India), “Did something to the ticket,” so they could check in. Apparently it was a result of the small schedule change, although this is not always a problem.

So then they tried it again, with the United Indian agent waiting on the line, and the response was: “Upgrade has gone through but can’t be processed. Contact Web Support.”

At this point they got transferred to another United employee (this time a woman who said she was in the Phillippines). She eventually said it was fixed.

Well sort of. In my client’s words,

Except not because it turned out that they noticed the connecting flight couldn’t be checked in because ‘Requested upgrade has not been authorized for use by a Mileage Plus member.’ (at this point they were writing down the responses.)

So back to the phones.

This time the first agent they reached in India immediately set up a three-way call with the Philippines (where web support is apparently headquartered). This fourth agent, who after first mistakenly saying it was because they had standby upgrades, finally forced the check-in through.

Somehow the return check-in, where the flights also had slight schedule changes, went through with no problem.

But these now very wary clients have another trip later in November around Thanksgiving, where United has changed the connecting city as well as the times. The first agent I had talked to about this next trip said it would be no problem, but given the reported weekend hassles, I called to see if United could internally adjust the electronic ticket.

The answer this time was, that it should be adjusted, but United couldn’t do it.

“Just reissue the tickets,” he said.

Well, leaving aside the fact that this was a United Airlines ticket and I was calling the United help desk, I couldn’t just “reissue the tickets.”

The clients, again, had used miles to upgrade the tickets. Reissuing coach tickets into first class is a guaranteed “debit memo” (bill) from the airlines. To make it worse, the flights in question were sold out.

When I explained this, the agent (in India again) he went to his supervisor and came back several minutes later to say that United would “kindly overbook the flights back into coach” so we could exchange the tickets in our agency.

I asked, if you are going to go to all that trouble why can’t you just revalidate the tickets in the first place.

Nope, that would be too easy. So about 30 minutes later, a United supervisor had the flights double booked, instructing me to rebuild the original expired fare, reissue the tickets “as soon as possible,” and then cancel the duplicates. “Don’t cancel the upgraded flights by mistake,” he added.

Well over an hour after we started this exercise, the tickets were done. Except for our agency’s internal paperwork. I was assured that check-in should be easier. Probably.

(Unfortunately, the system won’t give you a test run for online check in until 24 hours prior.)

Apparently the new heightened TSA rules may be complicating this whole process, and one United agent I talked later to said that the new standby complimentary upgrade process can confuse the system when travelers use miles, especially when flights are changed.

United did say they would have been willing to reissue the tickets had the passenger booked online. Even so, the changes wouldn’t have been done automatically. So had the clients waited until they got to the airport, it would have been a race against time to have them make their flight.

This sort of craziness isn’t exclusive to United, in fact it was particularly bad when Delta and Northwest merged, for example. It’s just one more way in which the airline travel experience has become more and more stressful. And it doesn’t bode well for the United-Continental merger.

At least the airlines aren’t charging an additional telephone support fee for the whole experience of working these problems that their schedule changes create. Yet.

(Photo: Timetables by W.A.T.T.)

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  • Len

    I would never even consider flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles or reverse when you can drive that route in 4 hours. The air lines can stick it where the sun don’t shine.

  • Joel Wechsler

    @Len Your comment is apparently related to the generic airport departure board that Janice used above her article, but I fail to see how it is relevant to the issue she presented..

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