What’s an “extra section?” Another reason to use a travel agent

by Janice Hough on December 29, 2010


The media is full of stories of passengers being stuck for days with the flight cancellations back east, and of there being no available flights for many of these stranded travelers until New Year’s Day.

A friend of mine, who books her own travel online, posted on Facebook about being stuck in Boston until the end of the week.

Except, United did have a flight, today, December 28, that was wide open yesterday evening, from Boston to San Francisco, flight 9795, nonstop at 3:15 p.m. And it was on-time. But, she never heard of it.

Yet I was able to offer it to clients, as were other travel agents I know. This flight was an “extra section.”

Simply put, an “extra section” is an added plane a carrier may put on for any reason. Usually this is done when there have been a number of canceled flights, sometimes I have seen two smaller flights canceled and an “extra section” added with a larger plane.

United 9795 was a large plane, 767, added yesterday presumably to deal with the Boston backlog. I have no way of knowing how many passengers United might have contacted for the flight, or if was just the luck of the draw or the phone call in finding about it.

(My guess is, that if any travelers were proactively called on the flight were the most elite level frequent fliers.)

I don’t know how many people were booked on the flight by travel agents searching for alternatives. But it was available and bookable for any agent who had passengers ticketed from Boston to the West Coast.

Now, these “extra sections” aren’t something that always happen. Although this afternoon there was a wide open available flight showing in our computer for December 29 at 4 p.m. from JFK to San Francisco.

Fortunately, I don’t have any clients stranded, but if I did, a 777 with hundreds of seats would certainly be a great alternative with the rest of United’s flights being sold out through the weekend. There were even great seat assignments available.

Plus, while I was writing this post, United added a return flight back from San Francisco to JFK Wednesday night. Again, wide open, but it will likely sell out tonight. (Note, while editing this post at 11 p.m., I looked and the JFK-SF flight is now full, and there are two seats left on the return.)

Quite frankly, most travel agents, if they are honest, will admit that domestic tickets are neither our favorite bookings nor do they generate enough revenue to keep us in business.

Such tickets pay zero commission, they require charging fees and unlike more theoretically complicated trips, we’ve all heard more than once “why would anyone pay an agent to do a simple domestic trip?” In fact at a Christmas party, a woman asked me if my clients were all lazy rich people, because she felt otherwise paying an agent for a plane ticket was “nothing personal, but it’s just silly.”

While admittedly not all travel agents know what an “extra section” is, or how best to search for alternative flights, a good agent can if nothing else save you hours of searching online or on hold.

Because sometimes the only difference between a “simple trip” and one of the most complicated travel adventures of your life, is weather and whether or not your plane gets canceled.

In those cases, that $30-$50 you may have paid a competent travel agent could turn out to be the best travel bargain of the year.

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  • Matthew in NYC

    If I am traveling on business, at a time of year when weather anywhere on my route might be a factor, or where time is of the essence, then paying $60 upfront to my TA is good insurance to have in case something goes wrong. I always remember that time I was able to call my TA as the plane was taxiing back to the gate after spending two hours waiting – he as able to look at options to get me where I needed to be (as it turned out, staying on the plane was the best option). Or the other time when I arrived at Pearson as the snow was falling, found my flight canceled, and was able to call my TA who used his TA computer to book a hotel room for me near the airport – that beat the hell out calling every hotel in the vicinity.

    If, however, I am using points to fly from NYC to Florida in the non-stormy season, I’ll take the risk.

  • Jamal

    Or you could buy trip insurance. My office as been buzzing for days as we’ve helped stranded passengers secure seats on those extra sections, and if those were not going where they needed to go, we put them in hotels with food vouchers and emergency cash. Something you’re not likely to get from a travel agent, unless they sell you a quality trip insurance product.

  • Alan

    On Saturday, February 6, I was returning to Washington Dulles from Hong Kong with a stop in Chicago. You may remember that this is the weekend that the east coast was hammered with snow. Most of the airports were closed and I was stuck in Chicago. United told me that I would not be able to get to Dulles until Tuesday night on the next available direct flight. After several calls (getting an overseas call center) I got a good agent that started looking at connections through other cities to get back earlier. All of a sudden a new “extra section” flight popped up in the system for a 767 from Boston to Dulles on Sunday afternoon. She was able to get my wife and me on a flight to Boston to make the connection to this flight with only one night in Chicago. This was one of the first flights to land at Dulles after being closed for over 24 hours and it was far from full. I later learned that United was repositioning the aircraft to Dulles to get Europe bound travelers out of Washington. Sometimes persistance pays off by looking at non traditional options that only an agent can find, either from the airline or an independent travel agent.

  • kenish

    FYI, it’s industry practice for 9xxx flight numbers to be special sections. It can be what’s described in the article, repositioning flights, maintenance check flights, etc. “Second sections” are when a regular flight has a second plane added, often during special events and holidays when there’s unusually high passenger demand….they are usually numbered 8xxx.

  • kenish

    Sorry, I meant “extra” section not “special” section!

  • http://www.cockam.com ajaynejr

    I have seen these extra sections (or special sections if you prefer) from time to time on Honolulu flights during peak seasons. Most likely the airline already had an idea of how many people book those dates but the extra section is not scheduled until closer to the date.

    It might start with the seat counts adjusted to permit consderably overbooking, then closer to the date the airline decides whether to let the scenario play out with asking for volunteers versus add the extra section.

    I have also seen extra sections added (probably with much less notice) on intercity bus routes. The question arises, do they re-rendezvous at each flag stop that either was requested to stop at in case baggage for a passenger was “on the other bus” due to confusion during boarding.

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