I have a very strange Tales From the Field post this week. What’s so odd about it? It doesn’t involve me fighting an airline. In fact, this is a positive post about United. Seriously.
I’ve already ranted about the annoying increase in the number of schedule changes airlines inflict upon their customers, but if that’s going to be reality, it’s encouraging to see airlines spending a little more time to make the reaccommodation process better. In particular, I’ve noticed United doing a good job with its automated processes lately.
Historically, when an airline changes its schedule, the automated process to reaccommodate passengers does the bare minimum at best. (Remember, Southwest doesn’t even have an automated process.) If the flight times change but the flight numbers don’t, then the airline doesn’t do anything. You just keep the flights you have, even if the connection becomes too short or absurdly long. Then it’s up to you to either use the primitive online tool or call the airline to get a better option if you aren’t happy.
If there’s a flight number change, then in most cases the airline just puts you on the next closest flight. Sometimes it’s the same time as the original one, but it’s a different flight number. Other times it could be way earlier or way later. (American just screwed my family over the holidays by creating an illegal short connection on our return.) If you don’t like what happened, then once again you have to deal with the airline directly to fix it.
Travel agents have the same issue, though there are guidelines on when they are allowed to make a change without any penalty, so it can often be fixed without actually talking to someone at the airline. The bottom line is that regardless of how it’s booked, it can require a lot of completely unnecessary work.
United has recently been making some big schedule shifts as it works to re-bank its hubs, so we’ve seen an avalanche of changes for our clients. Lately, however, the results have been better than usual. I don’t know how long this has been going on, but I like it.
Take this example to start. We had a client going from Seattle to San Francisco, then Frankfurt, and finally Florence. With an hour and 34 minutes in SF and about 2 and half hours in Frankfurt, the times were good and the clients were happy. But then United had to go and screw it all up.
The Seattle to SF flight was moved later and it now left an illegal 33 minute connection in SF (45 minutes is the minimum). Normally what we would have seen is United would have either left that impossibly short connection or would have just put the client on the next earlier flight from Seattle to SF. That would have been a 4 hour and 15 minute connection and would have required an early morning departure. Nobody would have been happy with either of those.
But United did something shocking. It actually reaccommodated the person on the best possible option out there over a different hub. The new flights changed the connecting point to Chicago, but with an hour and 15 minutes there and still the same time in Frankfurt as originally scheduled, this was a much better option. Our clients were very happy.
Of course, not all of these efforts end well, and there is some tweaking that could be done to refine the algorithm. We have another client who is flying from Phoenix to LaGuardia over the holidays. The original plan was to leave at 1010a, connect in Houston, and arrive LaGuardia at 810p. United made a schedule change, however, and changed them to the closest alternate departure time. That was a flight at 10a via Denver that arrived at 629p. There were two problems with this. First, this was in First Class and the flight to Denver was on a regional jet with only coach. Second, they were more interested in arriving near their original arrival time than they were departing near their original departure time.
It was a quick fix. We called United and had them moved to a later departure via Chicago that arrived near the original scheduled time. There was no problem getting that done, but it did require more work. Still, it was a good effort to try to find a workable option by the airline.
While I hate all the schedule changes that airlines inflict upon their customers, if they’re going to do it, they should be better at reaccommodating. It seems like United has at least been putting some real effort into making that happen, so kudos to the airline for that.
[Original high five photo via Shutterstock]