In a world of computerized rebookings, humans save a vacation from Isaac


The family had planned a late summer getaway to Turks and Caicos before school started after Labor Day. They were flying from Washington, D.C., and they were careful enough to book flights with plenty of connecting time in Miami in case of weather issues.

As an added safeguard, I had booked the flights and hotel through Classic Vacations, which has a 24-7 help line. All seemed to be fine until Tropical Storm Isaac appeared.

Even so, as the mother worriedly emailed me last week, it looked as if the family would dodge storm problems. They were only connecting through Miami and it appeared that the storm would be past south Florida by Monday.

Not that we had much choice as far as changes; American Airlines, like most carriers, wasn’t allowing preemptive changes when they expected their flights to go as scheduled.

And indeed, on Sunday, when American canceled most of their flights via Miami, they announced that most of them would fly as normal on Monday, except for some earlier departures, including my clients’ flight from D.C. to Miami. (Ironically, had they chosen an 8:20 a.m. flight instead of the 7:05 a.m., which gave them three hours in Miami, they would have been fine.)

In addition, probably because of the Sunday cancellation, when American canceled the first flight, the airline offered zero options as a backup, despite their much-vaunted auto-rebooking system. My clients only found out about the flight cancellation when Mom, a little nervous from watching the news, checked online. An hour later, American made a robo-call to Classic Vacations.

I got an email when I woke up on the West Coast and, at that point, my client had reached Classic Vacations, where one of the customer service people told her as soon as they reached American Airlines they would get back to her.

Here’s where the technology broke down. As these things go, it could have been worse. Other airlines, United and US Airways, had flights flying alternative routes through Newark and Charlotte to the Turks and Caicos, and they had space available.

However, American’s official waiver to travel agents, tour operators and travelers, simply allowed for rescheduling flights WITH American Airlines. And, all the American flights were full for the next few days.

Rebooking to another airline was simple, except that with the AA policy in effect, it was impossible to reissue the tickets on that new carrier. The changes couldn’t be done online either. The only people who could redo the tickets were American employees and their phones, even with the special numbers industry personnel have, were impossible.

When I spoke to an agent at Classic Vacations, he told me that several agents were asked to come in on their day off to help; all of them were trying to help people traveling via Florida. He also told me that they had been on hold for hours with American and that in at least one case, the call to AA’s reservations center had simply dropped after a hold time of almost two hours.

In theory, we could have issued new one-way expensive tickets on another carrier. But even with insurance, that could be a potential insurance issue, since we hadn’t given American a chance to fix the problem. This brought us back to the issue of not being able to reach the airline.

Finally, a solution occurred to me and the person I spoke to at Classic Vacations — was the airport an option? Why don’t we send our client to the airport and have her speak directly to an AA reservations agent at the desk? Human airline agents did have the power to endorse tickets to another airline. The only question was how far the clients were from the airport and how long the lines might be. (Leaving it until the morning of departure seemed way too fraught with potential problems.)

As it turned out, my client was more than willing to head to Dulles, her closest airport, and thought it was a great idea. I booked some flights for her on US Airways, as a brand-new reservation, and gave her the confirmation number.

Our worry was that with limited agents manning the kiosks, lines would be long. Fortunately, since American only has two daily flights from Dulles to Miami, the ticket agents weren’t inundated with passengers with problems and the ticket agent, seeing the lack of alternatives, quickly agreed to “endorse” the electronic tickets over to US Airways.

After a relatively short time, and a couple hiccups with US Airways over middle name issues, my client had boarding passes for the entire family for Monday morning and they made it to the resort.

Finding another airline with space available wasn’t rocket science, nor was sending the traveler to the airport. Had this been up to American Airlines, when their computer system couldn’t find a replacement flight, they would have simply allowed a refund and who knows what the resort would have done about cancellation penalties.

I know that many tech-savvy road warriors can fix their own problems by rebooking online. (In fact, I’ve often rebooked my own flights using a laptop link to our agency computer.) But, while airlines continue to cut staff in favor of automation, this problem caused by Tropical Storm Isaac was a situation where humans had to be involved to find a happy ending.