United Makes a Canceled Flight More Problematic (Tales From the Field)

I know I said awhile ago that I would start to write up some of the more interesting stories from Cranky Concierge clients since you all seemed interested, and now I’m finally getting around to it. I figured this light week would be a good one for a story, and this one was so bizarre, that I thought it would be an interesting read.

We had a client who was booked in business class to fly from Beijing to the US on United departing at 5pm. All wasUnited from the Field well until they announced a delay in the gate area. It was just a weather/airport issue and he had no further connections after this flight so it wasn’t a big deal. Then the flight canceled. Uh oh.

Apparently, there was a sick crew member on the flight who wouldn’t be able to travel. With that person in the hospital, the flight couldn’t fly. We received a call in the middle of the night from our client asking for help. United hadn’t even updated this in its own systems yet, so we could only rely on the information he was being given. (This isn’t as uncommon as you might think.) He was told that the flight was now re-scheduled under a new flight number for the following morning at 1030am.

After a long business trip, the last thing our client wanted to do was spend another night in Beijing, hoping that the crew would indeed be ready to fly at 1030am the next day so he asked us to look for options. (In the end, it did get out at 11a, but he didn’t want to chance it.) Pretty much all United flights had already gone for the day except for one full flight to Dulles which was on a several hour maintenance delay. Even if there were seats, he would have had to spent the night at Dulles since he would have gotten in so late, so that was a pretty bad option.

The only other option that night was a flight on Air China to LA and then on United to his destination. (The domestic flight was on a 757 with international-style business class, so this wasn’t a bad option at all.) While I imagine that we could have had United put him on this flight in business class without additional charge because the cancellation was United’s fault, he decided he would rather go in First Class since he was so exhausted. And there was one seat left. With the fare difference of only a couple hundred dollars (and no change fee for this pricey ticket), our client asked us to just reissue the ticket and put him in First Class. This is when things got ugly.

We first had to call United to get them to “uncheck” him in from the original flight. The agent made that happen easily. If you’re showing as checked in on your ticket, you can’t reissue the ticket until it’s back in “open” status. Once that was done, we then reissued the ticket and sent him on his way to Air China with about 2 hours to spare.

Multiple Problems with United’s Systems
Soon enough we were getting frantic calls from our client saying that Air China had nothing in its system. Oh great. We had booked this as a United codeshare because the price was several thousand dollars less, and then we could just reissue the ticket easily. Apparently United’s SHARES reservation system couldn’t handle it. Even though we only showed those flights he wanted in the reservation, United’s system showed him booked on four different flights. One was the new rescheduled morning flight that he didn’t want. There were also a couple of business class seats for the same Air China flight. What a mess. Though we had made changes in our system, apparently SHARES never got the message.

I got back on the phone with United and asked them to fix the problem. They canceled all the other flight segments so only the option via LA was left. I was assured he was all set, so I called him back and told him to have Air China check him in. No dice.

Once again, I got back on the phone with United to find out what happened. Apparently the previous agent just canceled the segments but never bothered to make sure the ticket matched those flights despite my asking. Since one of the extra random segments United had kept in the reservation was the new 1030am flight, United, without our knowing it, took our newly-reissued ticket and reissued it again to put him on that morning flight.

We were completely livid. He had paid extra money to go on these new flights and United just summarily switched it on him. I can understand how it happened since United’s system didn’t cancel it as it should have. But it caused major problems. To compound matters, we were right around an hour before the flight (this took a long time) and the Air China agents were saying they were going to close the flight for check in.

Back on the phone with United, this agent seemed a little sharper. It was a race against time when the agent said she had to call her ticketing services group to get the ticket reissued back to the way we had done it. Meanwhile, an email comes in from the client saying that Air China had closed the check in desk. I told him to hang tight and beg them to stay. (This was’t a hard system cut-off as you’d get in the US, so they had flexibility if they were willing.)

Sure enough, the United agent came back shortly saying the ticket had been reissued. I called my client and he had successfully stalled the friendly Air China agents. They were able to check him in and he was off to the gate for his flight home.

This wasn’t the only problem we had with United’s systems this week. Another client was on a mixed ticket with US Airways and United. It took over an hour to get this sorted out with the US Airways agent saying she had never seen a reservation so messed up. I don’t know what is going on at United, but I really hope it gets fixed.


41 Responses to United Makes a Canceled Flight More Problematic (Tales From the Field)

  1. Ted says:

    “I don?t know what is going on at United, but I really hope it gets fixed.”

    Seems like we’ve been hearing people say that and similar statements for over a year now. When is it going to get fixed?

    I think the answer to that is that there really isn’t any motivation to get it fixed. Sure, customers might get upset from time to time, but do they leave? Everyone I know who flies United does so for the mileage program. Many are 1k and aren’t willing to sacrifice their status for issues like this. So, until customers start voting with their feet, United will continue to stumble along. I guess that’s the beauty of a nice FF program for the airline.

    • Sanjeev M says:

      Of course there is motivation, you can only do so much with a strong mileage program and network. UA is not going anywhere anytime soon, but with a strong DL and WN they need to be on their toes.

  2. Without knowing all the fact, it sounds typical of what you get no matter what the business is. To many people with their hands in the computer and no one person is trainer to look at the whole picture to see what is going on.

    Each UA person did their own thing, but lacked common sense and basic brain cells to see what else was booked in the computer. Call center workers just do the one thing they need to do (right or wrong) and that’s it. And since you are just a voice on the phone they can tell you anything to get rid of the call knowing if something is wrong someone else will have to deal with it.

    It’s shameful that companies (not just airlines) only care about putting money in their bank account and not spending some to educate the workers who must work with the public who pays all their salaries and company bills.

  3. Dere says:

    Good stuff..like this sort of stuff.

  4. Gantt says:

    Well, at least the UA agents didn’t blame YOU for the mix up or simply say “nothing can be done”…..I’m finding that more and more…then the call has to be escalated. In most cases, the airlines view the travel agent as the enemy no matter what the situation. It is a very sad state of affairs.

  5. RICH says:

    UA staff have told me that the Continental computers cannot handle the heavy volume of the merged United and Continental combined computer systems. That is why the Complete and total crash of United systems nation wide 4 times in past 12 months.. On average you have to wait 1.5 to 2.5 hours for system to come back up… So much for a reliable back up server. It all depends if you are lucky and get an experience agent; as to how smooth your changes and problems are solved. Even 1 K customers have problems with United; thus all the free ticket certificates out there.

    • Oliver says:

      And LH staff told me that their six hour delayed flight would arrive nearly on time because the pilots old simply fly faster.

      Lesson: just because someone tells you something doesn’t make it so.

  6. Jonathan says:

    How’s this for a sequence of events *today*.

    I got a 12:47 text message from United, saying my son’s flight was canceled. (He was to fly LGA-IAD-LHR.) Around 3 a.m. when I woke up, I checked the online system, which shows the flight on time. I call United and the woman goes you’ve been rebooked. Since it was now going to be the evening flight, I asked if she could rebook him EWR-LHR nonstop. I’m told no seats. Not being happy with this agent’s approach, I called back. The second agent said she could see the confusion about the cancellation but yes, it’s canceled. But this agent was able to get my son on the nonstop.

    Finally about 5:23 am (for a 6 am flight), all my flight alerts finally show United has canceled the flight. You’d think this would be the end of the story. But no. Around 6:10, I get a bunch of alerts from my various sources that the flight has taken off!!! I call United and was told, yes, the flight was “reinstated.” He could have made his connection. He could be on the way to London right now. But no, now he has to fly the redeye. I asked for a business class upgrade for him for their foul up. Of course their answer was no.

    How do you so screw up your information flow and then end up uncancelling a flight?

    • CF says:

      Jonathan – I’ve definitely seen flights reinstated before, but you would think they would do a better job of communication so that people originally booked could be back on it. My guess is that weather was expected to be worse today than it turned out to be so they could operate more flights than they thought, so they were able to reinstate. But that’s just a guess.

      • Jonathan says:

        You are being generous with them. 1. The information flow was almost non-existent and, when there, conflicting and wrong. 2. If they thought the weather was going to be bad, why didn’t they issue a change waiver like they did for yesterday. They basically left me captive on a flight with no change option, cancelled the flight and then apparently at the last minute with no notification reinstated it. I’d actually love to regale you with their other SNAFUs over the last 12 hours. Made a bad situation worse. I should have paid you. :)

  7. judynagy says:

    My motto is “the more you know, the better you travel” and these kinds of stories are VERY educational. Keep up the good work!

  8. Doug says:

    I just spent Christmas with a relative who worked for many years in Continental’s IT department, specifically in res systems. He says United’s IT group is completely dysfunctional as the merger of the two groups was really botched. He finally gave up and found a new job where he is much happier and better paid.

    • Observer says:

      United’s IT group ??………..I think you mean Continental…….
      The UA executive who suggested United hold onto FASTAIR (UA’s much better computer system) was hit-canned immediately for not being a “team-player” (CO’s way). It’s been nothing but a mess since 3/3/12 thanks to CO, er UA holding onto CO’s SHARES’ system…..Because of SHARES (read originated with Eastern Airlines), you are at the mercy of agents more or less forced into CO’s way of thinking and doing business — “can’t do”, “NO”, they don’t think out of the box, etc. If a PNR is not cleaned up and synched properly (as is the case in this article), God help you.

      • David M says:

        Pre-merger Continental seemed to run just fine on SHARES. US Airways seems to run just fine on SHARES, which prior to the merger was the America West system (pre-merger US ran on SABRE). New United may be bigger, but it definitely seems like United just can’t get it’s act together running on SHARES.

        • Observer says:

          Sure Continental ran “just fine” on SHARES before the merger…..So did United using FASTAIR. To merge the much smaller size/operation as CO with a huge airline (United) and then take away a much faster, more capable computer from about 10,000+ UAL reservationists and airport customer service agents created the mess that still exists. UA agents with decades of experience were now thrown onto not only an inferior computer with very little training (5-10 days) but expected to somehow know (without instruction) new formats, airline policies (CO’s) and new procedures (CO’s). Essentially they were reduced to being “new hires” at the mercy of CO employees “helping” them with a mindset of negative/ “no, we don’t do it that way” or “can’t do it” answers. The rug was pulled out from under them (UAL employees) and the floor they are standing on is “rotting”.

  9. Jeff Z says:

    On United’s page where they typically list fee waivers for irrop’s that they have a fee waiver for Feb 14 to the 25 for changes made my Dec. 31, 2012 for flights from the New York Metro. What happened? Did their revenue management or reservations system screw-up so bad that they need to issue a fee wavier a month and a half in advance?

    https://www.united.com/CMS/en-US/travel/news/Pages/travelnotices.aspx#ExceptionPolicies

    • Matching Jetblue for families with kids in school? Due to hurricane Sandy, many school February breaks are being shortend / cancelled. I imagine UA realizes that by the new year, most people know if their plans have changed.

      • David M says:

        New York city schools did reschedule their break. US Airways calls theirs “New York City School Travel Policy”, which to me is a little clearer as to what its for then United’s “New York Metro Mid-Winter Break”.

  10. A says:

    Another reason I quit flying UA. Delta is far from perfect but they’ve always done me better than United ever did.

  11. I wonder how much of it is too many hands in the reservation? or do GDSes have firm locks on the reservations so this shouldn’t be a problem?

    • CF says:

      Nick – I don’t think it could be too many hands in the reservations. United would override anyone else if they were working in the reservation. So the system would have stopped me from reissuing the ticket if United was trying to do something. (It’s call “simultaneous changes” in the system.) So whatever United did was after the ticket had already been reissued.

  12. haolenate says:

    Ugh, I’m still livid over the United agent telling me yesterday that “American, Delta, and USAirways no longer honor our tickets”, only to get that same statement from another international call center agent. I’m totally done with United….. This is about as bad as the HP-US Sabre to Shares cutover… interesting that there is a common denominator here, huh?

  13. Ken says:

    Interesting.

    When you call United on behalf of a client, do you identify yourself as a travel agent? If so, do you have a special number that you call?

    • haolenate says:

      United closed their STAR desk for travel agents a while back… we get put into the same queue as the rest of you. And get the same frustrating agents you all do.

    • CF says:

      Ken – Yes, we always identify ourselves as a travel arranger and never pretend to be the client. We do have a special executive desk we can call at United, but this was in the middle of the night in the US and the desk wasn’t open. So we just had to call United reservations. Since he’s premier, we could have called a premier line, but I don’t think we did. (My memory is a bit hazy on that since it was the middle of the night.)

  14. cahdot says:

    UA is a mess not jsut in the computer program issues will they ever care enough too fix them all???one wonders.i dread using them and do so only once or twice a year…

  15. Kevin says:

    Thank you for posting this story. I really feel for you and your client. A client of mine had a similar fingernail-curling experience with United and Air China several months ago that still isn’t resolved. It caused all sorts of chaos with finger pointing galore. It doesn’t solve the problem, but knowing that others are having major issues with Air China and United makes me feel like I’m not the only one who’s had to deal with this. These situations are where are good “concierges” and/or travel agents really show how much value they bring with their expertise.

  16. UAPhil says:

    I’ve found that when I change a United reservation, the changes are often not communicated to partner airlines correctly (in my case, Lufthansa). When I make a change, I always ask UA for the partner confirmation number/record locator, then check directly with the partner to verify the booking. If it’s not correct, I call UA immediately to get it sorted out.

    • wyodog says:

      UAPhil — as a former csr & shares instructor, I can say your post is a GREAT tip. Legacy shares did not communicate with other res systems in real time, so we taught call the airline, verify seat availability, push the ticket over, get the new carrier’s record locator plus the agent’s initials, AND give the new record locator to the customer. For legacy CO this was best practice and best customer service. UA’s Fastair communicated better with other systems, but like shares, agents had no way to know if the ticket was successfully pushed to the other carrier…until the customer showed up again, understandably more frustrated than ever. However, during the transition to shares, it appeared to me UA hadn’t previously emphasized these steps in fastair classes.

  17. Dave Starr says:

    Very informative and educational Brett, thanks. One thing I think this story points up, as much as all the technical skills and perseverance your concierges and the airline reservationists had to go through was one very often overlooked factor many ignore.

    The client kept his cool and stayed friendly with the China Air “gate keepers”.

    His situation was indeed annoying and frustrating. It’s so easy to get annoyed and lose one’s temper … especially with the kind of fare this fellow was paying and the level of service he -_should_ have been getting.

    But it wasn’t the fault of the folks at the gate, and with patience and good cheer, all involved made it happen.

    I once was on an LAX to NRT United 747. There were some delays and the gate agents were besieged by many noisy and insistent “upgrade seekers”, waving their mileage cards and ‘barking’ at the ladies.

    My problem was an issue with making sure my pet dog was aboard, before I boarded back in my “Y” class cattle car seat. The ground personnel weren’t cooperating with the gate person, but I get quiet and waited silently until finally, long after boarding was underway, the gate agent motioned to me and led me around behind the podium.

    “Sir”, she said, “thank you for your patience. I told you I would get you the information and I am sorry it took so long, you were so kind just to keep out of the way and wait. Your dog is indeed aboard and I want your and your wife’s boarding passes”. I handed them to her and she handed me back two more.

    She then said, “I can’t stand how insistent some of the upgrade-ers are. Just now and go straight upstairs, I gave you and your wife the upgrades I was going to give to the most obnoxious customer out there who has been shouting at me every five minutes. I hope he likes coach”.

    Learned something that trip … I’d never flown in First before and on a leg that long it was a real treat. Being kind to the “gate keepers” never hurt anyone.

    • Dave Starr –

      As someone who worked for an airline many years ago I can tell you this is so true. The more you ticked off someone the more you found you didn”t get what you want or in the case of ticket counter agents you may be going to London but you bags went to Bombay

  18. I have to ask Dave Starr: How long ago did you get those first class upgrades by being nice? Nowadays would some computer program take the discretion away from the gate agent and give those upgrades to the highest status level “upgrade seeker?”

    • Dave Starr says:

      @ Jonathan Reed:

      Yes it was a long time ago. As we say on the Internet, YMMV. But I still believe in my main point: Being kind to the ?gate keepers? never hurt anyone. Perhaps instead of “kind”, I should have used the word “Respectful”. Have you found that some other attitude works better?

  19. Cook says:

    Thanks Bret, an excellent post. I too would like to see more of this type. Not only is this great promo for your business, it gives prospective clients some great insight into what an expert can do for him/her in a crunch. In the case cited here, I suspect that your client would have had ZERO success in trying to fix it on his own, especially while sitting in the Beijing airport. Boo-hiss for United, but screw ups and incomplete assistance (that one, critical entry?) seems to be their specialty. In fairness, I suppose that you should also include the odd case that cannot be resolved – and the reason. A very fine post!

  20. Johnny Jet says:

    Excellent post! Keep these Cranky Concierge post coming

  21. JayB says:

    I had the chance to participate/observe in a snapshot how different airlines (UA/AA and their regionals and Southwest) operate and react, or don’t, to weather, their customers, and their bags, and how different airports (IAD, ORD, Branson, MO, Little Rock, Houston Hobby, and IAH) are capable, or not, of handling weather and peak travel situations over the past few days in a planned, nice, easy trip from IAD to Little Rock and return.

    [Yes, a 10-inch snowfall is not an everyday occurence for that airport and its one (apparent to me) snowplow. And, maybe the area only has two shovels and three brooms to clear snow from aircraft and for loading piers. But, com'on. It does seem like a lovely place to visit, but I (Mr. travel planner-expert) wasn't able to see very much beyond the airport.]

    A couple of observations: (1) There are a lot of grossly, overworked airline people out there (flight crews, gate personnel, line workers, etc.). The ability of these people to communicate clear, honest, and believable information to their customers is not good, to say the least. The airline business is awash in information, but the ability of airlines to communicate honest and timely to their customers is terrible.

    (2) With the growth in the airlines’ use of regionals, which I must submit isn’t all bad, it seems to me the problems airline customers have in getting a good travel experience, particularly, of course, when weather, power issues, res systems act up, are very, very increased. The marketing carriers seem to have a tough time working with customers when they are using their own aircraft and people, but when you throw in the regional operations, the experience too often is made far worse.

    (3) Is is amazing to me how well airlines are able to handle and re-route bags. Why is it that same set of skills doesn’t transcend to handling passengers?

    (4) Though they are not my airline of first choice (considering where I live and the impact of the frequent flier programs of the others), Southwest really, really, knows how to run an airline. This trip confirms for me any doubts I might have had about this. Their gate people, the people on the flight-line, crews, you name it, they have their act together. Personally, I believe that unless the legacies and their ilk adopt or copy the Southwest business model, and improve on it if they can, none will survive much longer. Not too far down the road, this industry will look a lot differently, and that will probably be for the good.

  22. Casper says:

    Thanks for the post Brett. Unfortunately, I had a very similar tale when I attempted to fly on the 787 recently. I had such a horrible experience, and ultimately never flew on the correct aircraft. I cannot tell enough people of the horrible service I received from United. To this day, my ETKT is still a complete mess, and after several attempts to get my reservation back in order, I was forced to have US Airways correct the issue using a back-door contact with SHARES A access. I have never experienced such incompetent service by UA, and I hope they get their system issues rectified soon!

  23. Dave VH says:

    ? O does this sound so familiar.Having been a ticket agent at Virgin Atlantic, I went through this same scenario JUST LIKE THIS several times, and I know what this poor airline agent and passenger were going through. When I read these experiences, it makes me glad I have retired! /Dave VS/LAX RETIRED

  24. JetBrat says:

    This horror story brings me memories that are not so pleasant. In a previous assignment i was often in the frequent position of having to contact and work with United….. I can only say i was always impressed in a less than positive way… One time a United agent called me to reprotect a pax as a rule 240…. When i requested the ticket number the United agent responded he ” did not see a ticket”. I cannot even explain how confused I was when the agent seeking protection for a ticketed pax stated he had no ticket number to finalize the protection…..

    I was even more confused by the fact that the level of competency I just described was consistent throughout most of my interactions with United agents…..

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