The Skies May Be Friendly, but United’s Reservation System is Not (Tales From the Field)

[Update 9/27 @ 1049a: After much research, it turns out the problem lies with US Airways not United. I posted an apology to United here.]

I decided to put up a special Wednesday post this week, because it dove-tailed so well with yesterday’s post about United resurrecting the Friendly Skies slogan. Yesterday brought another rough experience with United, though it wasn’t due to poor customer service. It appears that United’s (and US Airways’) res system has once again messed up United Tales from the Fieldtravel plans. This time it wasn’t for a client but rather for a trip for me and my family to Maui.

My wife and I booked our tickets using United miles, and we booked the kids and a babysitter using US Airways miles on those same United flights. Unfortunately, the babysitter was no longer able to join us, so I called up US Airways to make the change. Since all three were in the same reservation, the agent simply divided off the babysitter into a new record and canceled her out. While the agent was taking my payment info for the $150 mileage redeposit fee, I decided to make sure the reservation for the other two still looked fine online.

When I went to, the website showed our kids having their seats as before. But Of course it showed the entire reservation had been canceled. So who is at fault here? It’s hard to know, especially since both use the SHARES reservation system. My guess is that it’s a “feature” of SHARES that just messes things up. You’d think that it would have been easy to fix since I caught it right away, but that wasn’t the case.

I was still on the phone with the US Airways agent so I explained the problem to her. She went to investigate and said she had to go get a hold of someone at United to try to get it fixed. I waited.

After more than an hour, the US Airways agent managed to get a laugh out of me. We hadn’t spoken at all about the ad campaign, but she came back and said, “United was NOT friendly but we were able get them to finally give us the space back on those flights.” Nice. But then she continued. “Unfortunately, they wouldn’t help with seat assignments so you’ll have to contact them directly.” She was even kind enough to waive the redeposit fee for the one ticket that was supposed to be refunded.

That was mostly good news except for one real problem. The seat assignments we had were now gone on the way out, so we were looking at having scattered babies on the airplane. Delightful.

The United Twitter team was great in responding and trying to help, but there wasn’t much that could be done since it took so long to get the problem fixed. We had to have a window for the car seat (that’s required) and that meant there weren’t good options anywhere on the airplane. In the end, they were nice enough to put us in two pairs in Economy Plus, though we were still a few rows apart.

I understand seat assignments aren’t guaranteed, and things like aircraft changes can mess with pre-existing plans. But this was simply a technology issue that I caught so quickly it shouldn’t have been hard to fix. It sounds like the United agent with whom US Airways spoke wasn’t very friendly, but everyone I dealt with at United was. Still, it took hours to deal with something that should have been a minor 5 minute transaction. And that fits quite solidly with what I’ve been experiencing with United in our business lately. Problems still take at least twice as long to resolve as on other airlines.

I’m just glad I double checked to make sure everything looked fine on United’s side. My guess is that most people wouldn’t, and would simply show up at the airport to get a nasty surprise.

This is exactly what made me nervous when I saw United’s new ad campaign. Flat beds, power outlets, and legroom are all nice, but if you can’t get your systems to work right, then you shouldn’t be talking about how friendly you are. I continue to feel bad for those who work for United at the airport or in reservations, because their jobs are far harder than they should be.

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33 Comments on "The Skies May Be Friendly, but United’s Reservation System is Not (Tales From the Field)"

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Olamide Iledare

When reading the comments in the last post, I sometimes wonder how quickly we expect a big monster of an airline to change its image. Is it to much to ask that as airline rolls out new ads or programs to bring along with it blogs explaining there goals and how there attack some of the problems facing their customers? Cranky if you need a baby sister in Maui I will volunteer my services safe journeys.

Neil S.

I work in advertising. And what few clients understand is that you have to fix operations BEFORE you run the ads.

This post is case and point.

I’ve worked on restaurant brands a lot – I can get you to come to the store with a deal or a new limited time item, but if the food is cold or the bathrooms are dirty, you’re not going to come back.

Plain and simple.

Not totally related, but I had an unfriendly conversation with a Delta rep yesterday. Not on the level of your issues, but unfriendliness in the consolidated industry nonetheless. Air France’s site had a glitch where it wouldn’t show flights available. When you call the Air France number, you get a Delta rep and the one I got she refused to quote me a price on an Air France Ticket. She told me there was no glitch and would only give Delta prices, which were $1000 more per person, and insisted on explaining what a code share was and that it… Read more »
Eric A.

Interesting….I had the SAME problem with a KLM/DL code share on Monday. DL said it was not their issue. I called KLM and worked with the most helpful, friendly and professional KLM employee I’ve encountered in decades! She said the glitch was me booking a 4 segment open jaw and booked me manually. As an amends for the inconvenience, she waived the phone booking fee! O*O

Mitch Weiss

Good thing you had Cranky Concierge helping you LOL


Feels a bit hyper-sensitive? Sounds like you had a fairly complex change where you booked with miles on a codeshare flight and only wanted to cancel one of three people on the reservation. United ultimately seated you together in Economy Plus at no charge. No company is going to be perfect… but they did fix the problem and do the right thing to help you. Isn’t that flyer friendly?

Not an apologist for UA, but I find improvements with the rez system (of course, from where they were, anything is an improvement.) What I, as an individual traveler, a party of one, see, and experience, isn’t all that bad. Of course, if I see a code-share, I run and hide from it without exception. And, please don’t extoll the virtues of your alliances. To, me they just seem to add one more level where things can get screwed up. Of course, an airline has so much to cover, what do we expect. Last week, on my $0.00 RT fare,… Read more »

The Dude that complained about being at IAD coming from main terminal into the Gate D gates then having to walk to c6??? There is also a C crossing at Gate C18. Sounds like this person failed to CHECK which TRAM they were crossing on. The C Tram crosses at c 18! Now who’s fault was that? Could you NOT read??


Just for the record, as I believe I said, that was C6 at IAD, D gates at LAS.

My family of five (three children, ages 16, 11 and 8) flew on our summer vacation this August on United (direct flight). I had booked (and selected) our seats 6 months beforehand. I am sensitive to the seat limitations, and am careful to book my seats in a configuration that my husband and I are seated in front of our kids. For both our sectors (this was a direct United flight from Newark), our seats were changed with no notifications to us. By the time we checked in online, the flight was full and not a single seat to be… Read more »
Nick Barnard

Geez. This and my experience from the past week or so leads me to believe that UA’s CIO should be looking for work….


When you pick your seat is it just a request to the airlines or is it your seat?

Now part of the story about United/USAirways is just not true! Reservation agents for years have tried to sell ticket with guarantee seats. Never happens. The only way to ensure your chance for seats together is show up early. Less than 20 minutes just not going to happen. Look at the back of all purchased tickets. No guarantee of seat assigned together. Plus must check for Domestic at least 20 minutes before departure to even be guaranteed a seat and International? AN HOUR AND HALF. SO THAT IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE, JUST LUCKY THAT USAIRWAYS HAPPENED TO HAVE SOME SEAT… Read more »

Were the two original reservations booked with the same SHARES airline, or one PNR with United and one with USAir, as a United operated codeshare?


There are definitely gremlins in SHARES. For a recent trip JFK-SFO and back, the 2 of us were upgraded with miles in advance, and selected seats in the former F cabin of the 3-cabin p.s. plane. On the outboard, seats were fine, but miles wouldn’t post without manual intervention. On the return, our seat assignments were randomly scrambled from 1A/B to 1B/2D. We ended up putting ourselves back in row 5A/B in the business cabin so we can sit together.

Joan Wells

Today United rescheduled a December flight I booked months ago. The revised schedule was unsatisfactory, and I asked United to rebook me on another flight that still had available seating. The United agent tried to talk me into taking a flight I didn’t want and, when I told her that the schedule change entitled the affected passengers to select another flight that better serves their needs, he simply hung up on me. “Customer care” is a foreign language at United.

More and more this has been my experience with Untied Airlines. The people are generally friendly and try…. But the systems constantly get in the way. I’ve had MANY similar experiences with full-fare tickets, award travel, economy tickets, all of them. Not because of what I do, but I fly mostly commuter airlines (through United). They will cancel flights at a whim (weather, mechanical, planes not in the right place, too cloudy, too sunny, etc.)…. So then United automatically re-books me THREE DAYS LATER (happened more than once). And I have status (not that it means anything anymore). Last time… Read more »
As a software guy, I’m afraid that UA has a fundamental flaw in their reservation system. It appears they are doing changes not as a single transaction but as a cancel followed by re-issue. While normally this works fine, it is bad design. The minute a plane is full, your experience with seat reservations happens. Even worse, is getting dropped from the flight. Last week I had a SFO-PVG trip scheduled on nonstops in business class. I changed the return leg to get a later flight. BUT, despite only changing the return leg, I found myself dropped from business class… Read more »
121 Pilot


Does United recognize and acknowledge the breadth and depth of the problems tat you and others have recounted here not only in terms of technology but also in terms of how their employees are responding to the problems their system is creating?

Thank you for your post and comments. I had booked award seats back in May for my husband, myself and daughter and due to this post, I checked to make sure we were still seated together and found our seats had been changed without any notice. I was able to change them back, but really this is unacceptable. If they are going to change seats, at least let the customer know about the change. Otherwise, I guess we have to periodically check our reservations to see if they are still valid. Like others, this is not the first time that… Read more »
Ivan B Zhabin
Due to circumstances change I started flying United as a revenue passenger on a regular (~3 trips per month) basis, and have been doing it for about 4 months. Things have been relatively smooth from the software/technology perspective. I did experience some issues though. Once (on a day with a weather delay of an hour or so) as I was standing in line to finally board, my mobile boarding pass (via app) simply went away. I panicked as clearly there were a lot of misconnects from prior flights ready to take seats, but the agent was able to print a… Read more »

[…] my post on Wednesday about United’s reservation system not being very friendly? Well there were some people at United who were very concerned that this could be an unknown error […]

Bob Simmons

Why do you make these posts when youn are uncertain where the blame lies??? The last one that I recall concerned the reservation of a client of yours that was most certainly affected by your agency, and the airline (at your direction), making PNR changes concurrently. That was asking for trouble. Why “boo” to US Airways, when you are still not clear with respect to the cause. I am connected with neither airline