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.

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