United is Doing a Better Job of Reaccommodating Schedule Changes (Tales From the Field)

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 United Does Something Goodreaccommodation 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]

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23 Responses to United is Doing a Better Job of Reaccommodating Schedule Changes (Tales From the Field)

  1. dctravel says:

    It is interesting that you posted this today. I was scheduled to fly through O’Hare on Friday, but was apprehensive about the ATC issues and making my connection. After doing some research, I called United and the agent could not have been more helpful. Not only did she answer all of my questions about the rules for the exception they are granting, but she came up with a routing (through IAH) that requires we leave 10 minutes earlier and arrive 15 minutes later than originally scheduled. I was impressed.

    While this is different that straight up schedule changes, maybe it is showing a culture change at United? If so, I would welcome that.

  2. MeanMeosh says:

    Curious if you’ve seen any improvements in lost seat assignments also? Along with the operational difficulties, that seems to have been a common complaint from friends who fly UA – SHARES will eat seat assignments, often due to schedule or equipment changes, but the phone agents basically tell passengers that they’re on their own and will just have to fix problems at the airport.

    • CF says:

      MeanMeosh – No, that still sucks. And when they do somehow maintain seat assignments during schedule changes, they don’t do a good job. We had a client who was on a CRJ that was upgauged to a CR7. There were plenty of seats on the airplane, so what does United do? Puts one in 11A and the other in 12B. 12A was open. Brilliant.

      • Shane says:

        I flew to Costa Rica this summer and was originally on an pm-CO configured 757, so we selected 8A,B,C,D which is the second row of coach and E- since those planes only had the bulkhead and exit rows as E+. The aircraft changed to a 737-800 and we kept our seats despite them now being E+. A small victory.

  3. David SF eastbay says:

    Maybe new software is in the works for airlines that doesn’t just ‘see’ the flight being changed, but it actually looks at the whole picture and includes connections. That would make a difference and be a big improvement.

  4. Oliver says:

    From the “can’t make everyone happy” department, if I had been the SEA pax and booked in a premium cabin, I would have preferred the longer international flight from SFO (for more sleep) and thus taken the longer layover.

    • CF says:

      Oliver – So you would have rather taken a 715a departure from Seattle and then waited around SFO for 4 hours just to take that nonstop from SF? It’s only about 1.5 hours longer to fly to Chicago.

      Then again, Carl says below that’s exactly what he’d want. Of course, United will never please everyone with an automated system, but I’d bet most people would prefer to go via Chicago than SF with a long layover. (Remember, most people aren’t flying in a premium cabin.)

      • Oliver says:

        Strange as it may be, I don’t particularly mind longer layovers. Gives me greater certainty that I will make my connection without stressing when there is a delay, and I can always get work done (or read) in the lounge, so yes, if it has been the scenario Carl described, I would have preferred the SFO routing with the upper deck.

        If I had been in coach, it would have depended on the seats available.

        Like I said, they can’t possibly make everyone happy. :)

        • Carl says:

          As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate lie flat seats on intercontinental flights, and willing to take time penalties to arrive feeling better and ready to enjoy my trip. And soon there will be a Centurion Lounge in the UA area at SFO.

          One observation. Before the merger, UA seemed to have flights time so that there were always reasonable connections – and CO seemed to generally do this, too. Since the merger, the schedules have been much whackier. Often the schedule changes day by day. Sometimes there have been 6-hour gaps between SFO & SEA (which makes little sense if SFO is the primary Asia gateway and has arrivals and departures spread out. Often there is only a 6am to EWR (arriving 2pm) and then a 4pm to EWR (arriving midnight). Quite bad for most EWR connections. Lately the timings to IAH have been sporadic, too. A lot of connecting times just aren’t working well. They really need to evaluate the people who build the schedule on whether the network is creating all the connections it should.

  5. CS says:

    United gets a lot of flak for management, but IT is one thing United has really done a great job at. I find the United App to be the best one out there. I’ve had aircraft return to the gate for MX and as soon as I open my email there is an auto-apology and a credit to my account without having to call in. It’s all these little automations and tools that really free up staff to deal with customers in a more impactful way.

    • Shane says:

      Now if only United could revamp the website to be as slick and useful as the mobile app. I long for the days pre-merger when you could pick the outgoing flight on the left and the return flight on the right without having to scroll through hundreds of rediculous combinations like you have to now. Digression.

  6. IT_Nerd says:

    It’s interesting you mention this, and it’s no coincidence actually. For the past 2 years UA has been developing a new schedule change reaccommodation program in-house, off of its host reservation system. It was just recently activated from what I’ve heard, that’s why you may notice improvements to the reaccommodation part of schedule changes. They still have a way to go though and are doing it scenario by scenario from what I was last told.

  7. Chicago Chris says:

    United’s system also does a great job of allowing customers to choose the best option that fits them. We were flying into HLN (Helena, Montana), but our first leg was delayed for a mechanical. The system put us on the next flight, but it meant a 9 hour layover in Denver.

    United’s mobile app allowed us the option to fly into any airport in Montana or take a flight the following day at no extra cost. We opted to fly the next day and make the most out of an unplanned day in Denver.

  8. Carl says:

    I had an SEA-SFO-FRA-Italy routing which UA changed into an SEA-ORD-FRA-Italy routing… but I was not happy about that at all. I had been confirmed upstairs on a 744 with a 10.5 hour flight that would allow a full nights sleep, and had picked the flight because I find upstairs on the 744 to be UA’s best cabin, with only 20 passengers, 2 flight attendants, 2 lavs, and lots of peace and quiet. I did not appreciate UA switching me a longer domestic flight, a shorter overnight flight in a 772 with 8-across business seating – and unfortunately it is almost impossible to avoid galley noise and lav noise on UA’s 772.

    Luckily I was able to change it back, but I’d prefer greater control rather than making decisions for me. They could still do this within an automated system by sending me a message to go to the website and giving me options. Only if none of the options are acceptable would I have to call in.

    Luckily it is my practice to “garden my reservations” and check them periodically.

  9. JayB says:

    Interesting stuff, these schedules, changes, etc. I’ve been discussing this (I sometimes call it more than “discussing”) with UA for years. I really do appreciate the difficulty any airline has in trying to get an airplane to my gate timely, getting crew to show up for work, getting people to board nicely–Boarding Group 1 first, group 2 second, etc., having them stow their stuff quickly, sitdown and shut-up, etc., getting ATC to route the flight nicely, getting the ATC people to keep their facitlies up and operating, getting the weather to be kind, and what else. OK, then everything seems to go to hell in a handbasket!

    So, I’m upset and I go to UA and they retort: “Dear customer, refer to Rule 24 of our Contract of Carriage, and to which you agreed: “Except to the extent provided in this Rule, UA shall not be liable for failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or for any change in flight schedule, with or without notice to the passenger.”

    But, I’m convinced this is not some innocent mistake, something beyond the carrier’s control. I blame it on all the garbage the airline uses to market. So, I complain to DOT, arguing that this is something that airlines foist on customers, what with flight times I perceive as unrealistic, flights with miserable on-time performance or a terrible history of being cancelled, flights that operate with plane-changes where none was noted in advance or otherwise marketed as being “direct” where “direct” is not exactly what you or I might call “direct,” or flights operated by all manner of other airlines, some of which I can hardly call a something of any type of good standing.

    DOT listens but isn’t sure there is a rule that covers all this, or one that by regulatorily-prescribed “asterisk” or “disclosure,” doesn’t already relieve the airline of any liability.

    May I opine, if the airline has put an “asterisk” or a “disclosure” to something, the customer is not able to play on a level playing field!

  10. DesertGhost says:

    It’s nice to read about something an airline is doing right. It’s also telling to see how few comments have been posted about it.

  11. Leslie in Oregon says:

    Now if we could just do something about the fact that an airline can change a passenger’s flight schedule to suit its needs, while a passenger must pay through the nose if s/he needs to do the same.

  12. PK says:

    It’s good to see an airline actively re-accomodating, of course, not everybody wants to go via ORD.

    But doesn’t LH fly SEA-FRA nonstop?

    • Carl says:

      LH does fly SEA-FRA nonstop, and they are even in a JV with UA. Still there are all kinds of reasons why someone might fly on UA. UA has econonmy plus seating, LH doesn’t. UA has lie flat in business class fleet-wide (and has had for some time). LH is only starting to install it now, and it’s only on a small portion of their aircraft. Perhaps on UA he found a confirmed upgrade (LH upgrades are only space available day of flight). Perhaps he wanted to accumulate UA lifetime status miles (despite the JV LH flying doesn’t count). And if it is an award ticket, UA now charges more miles to fly on LH than on UA (despite the JV again).

      Not saying there aren’t some things that may be quite good about LH (especially LH F which is being removed from a number of routes including SEA) but there are quite a few things a passenger may value about UA.

    • CF says:

      PK – In this particular instance, the client had purchased a coach ticket and then upgraded to biz. So they would be highly unlikely to put that passenger on Lufthansa. My guess is that I could have had them put on the nonstop if they wanted to ride in coach, but that wasn’t an option.

  13. CP says:

    Interesting post. I have been hit in the past few weeks with a torrent of itinerary changes on American–nearly every single trip I have booked in November and December has been hit by flight number and schedule changes. I agree with you–it’s really irritating to keep-up with the changes (I’ve had two itineraries change 3 times each). I have to call AA regarding a complicated, multi-leg December itinerary in which the flight times and numbers changed on EVERY day of the itinerary, which had been carefully booked around a number of already-scheduled meetings with clients. I’m not quite sure why it’s so hard for airlines to stick with the schedule they published upon selling the ticket.

  14. Will says:

    Amazing post.

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