On United, a delayed outbound flight leads to a canceled return


Having Global Services status on United usually means top-level service from the airline, including special assistance with any problems at the airport that can include being personally met at the gate.

In my client’s case today, all the special attention in the world wouldn’t have averted a near disaster on her return when her flight from Europe was accidentally canceled.

The traveler, a CEO heading to Europe for a meeting, was booked in business class San Francisco to JFK to Geneva. It was a United flight connecting to Swiss Air, with a reasonable two-and-a-half-hour connecting time. She then was scheduled to leave Geneva on Saturday to return via Washington, D.C. and continuing on to San Francisco two days later.

I got a curious message late this morning from United through our GDS reservation system to “remove canceled segment” (the kind of message we get when a client changes a flight directly). in this case, the segment they were referring to was the Geneva to D.C. flight.

Now, as travel agents know, clients change their minds and they don’t always tell us what they are doing. But, I was curious and decided to find out what she had done.

So, I did a little research. Her flight left the gate in San Francisco on time, but returned for a mechanical problem; our system showed United had internally exchanged her ticket. But, United didn’t explain what new flights they had booked.

Checking on the United website, the ticket still showed four flights, but now it showed an extra flight on the outbound — a later plane from JFK connecting in Zurich to Geneva. The Geneva return flight seemed to have vanished.

I called Global Services at this point. The agent at first said her new ticket showed the traveler wasn’t scheduled to fly home from Geneva on United at all.

When I told her this was NOT what we had booked, she looked further and discovered the reservation had been accidentally canceled, either by the automatic rebooking system or an airport agent in a hurry. The person who reissued the ticket did not notice it.

Even though tickets are now electronic, there are different flight electronic coupons for each leg. The original ticket had four coupons. Presumably, since she now needed an extra flight to get to her destination, whoever physically redid the ticket simply assumed the new connecting flight was part of her return. Or, they were going too fast and didn’t even think of it.

In any case, the return had been almost sold out. Since we caught it today, the agent I spoke to was able to grab the seat back, and get the ticket reissued.

United never said or sent anything to the traveler about the cancellation, and never sent us anything showing the new flights. And for my part, it wouldn’t have been hard to assume that the client had contacted the airline directly for a change over the weekend.

Had the traveler made an online booking, the Global Service agent admitted there were no flags about anything being wrong. She wouldn’t have noticed anything until she either tried to check in online the day before, or when she got to the Geneva airport where she would have found she had no reservation.

Of course, United would have given her some compensation for their mistake. However, I doubt it would have made up for the hassle and what probably at best would be a return flight in coach, since business class is now full again.

Planes get delayed and connections are missed all the time. Usually, snafus like this don’t happen. “Usually,” however, is pretty meaningless when it’s your flight that gets messed up.

The moral of this story: Anyone who has an issue requiring any flight changes on an itinerary should simply check any future legs of the trip (or, have your travel agent check) upon arrival or the next day.

The same is true when a late check-in means almost not getting on the plane, because the system MIGHT think it’s a “no-show,” which also cancels the return.

If it turns out the return flights are fine, then it’s just a few wasted minutes. If there’s a problem, then double-checking could save your trip.

  • AirlineEmployee

    SHARES, end of story.

  • DCTA

    Precisely. LOL!!!!

    For those who don’t know, when UA and CO merged, UA migrated away from their own Apollo/Gallileo system and to CO’s SHARES. Not necessarily a great move and the problem behind all the chaos of the immediate post-merger issues.

  • Carrie Charney

    And checking in the night before for my return flight was when I found out my reservation had been canceled because I had been a “no-show” for my flight from SFO to RDM. I had flown EWR to SFO, but my connecting flight to RDM had been cancelled by United Express. As it was the last flight of the evening, there was already a hotel room booked for me and I was already booked on the connector the next morning. I didn’t have to ask for anything, so I had no reason to suspect I didn’t have a return flight. Luckily, a call to Continental at the time got me a quick fix, as they discovered their error. Needless to say, I learned not to wait till the last minute to check my flights.

  • travelnomad

    These errors, if the passenger had checked in are usually blamed on the travel agent, which makes no sense,why we would cancel a clients return. Having been both a an airline employee, United for many years, and then a travel agent, I know what went on and it is still going on.

    Many Airline employee’s at the counter or gate now days, when i flight s cancelled or a portion needs a reroute, don’t take the time to recheck what they just did or pay attention to the onward or return itinerary.

    More then once I have traveled with groups, and a simple hitting of the wrong key, can cancel seat assignments for the whole itinerary and you don’t realize it, if you are in a hurry.

    Which most passengers and gate agents are. I would say the most mistakes happen at the airport. Many years ago, I had a group of 87 passengers at Washington Dulles, and we were at the gate boarding a Delta flight.

    All of a sudden one man looked down at his boarding pass and wanted to change seats at the very last minute, before getting on the jet reamp..

    I stayed with him fortunately, and as the gate agent was on the computer, he waved his hands in the air and said a curse word.

    The two other Delta employee’s came rushing over and things stopped. He said some how I just cancelled all seats in the group on ALL flights and ended the record. The seats were gone.

    He said, oh, God, what do I do now. Fortunately I was old school, and I always print out for groups a “manifest” showing all seats, all the passengers names. Within 30 seconds I handed it to him.

    Though, we did not get all the same seats assigned on the return as it took the agent quite a bit of time to assign those seats again.NOT every body was now seated next to friends or spouse. But they had seats assigned again.

    I wonder what excuse or who they would have blamed, when my group would have had no seats on their return 4 days later,if I had NOT been escorting them and given my list to Delta.

    Now days, it just seems worse. The airlines make so many mistakes
    And we have to fix them or get the brunt of the clients ire. We don’t own the airlines and some times they work with us and many times they don’t. They just don’t care anymore in many cases.

  • mjhooper

    Not just in the flight business do they not care. Nursing homes are in a bad way, too. At the rate the Congress is going, this country will soon be as ridiculously inept as Russia was in its worst modern days.

  • Ian

    The same thing happened last Thanksgiving coming back from Maui. When we tried to checkin for our return flight the system said there was an error. Luckily there were two seats available for the return, however we lost our good seat assignments. We didn’t even get extra segments added our flight was delayed so the gate agent had us on a backup flight, but our original connection was late also so we made it.

  • James Penrose

    Zombie corporations. No one really in charge, no one really checking to see if anything has fallen off and no one there when you need to get a human involved who can take over and make it happen even for the highest class of frequent flyer.

    With a passenger at that level, a human ought to review *anything* done by the system and make sure it is what it should be or make some calls to find out.

    I’m nowhere near that league of frequent flyers but if they can’t get it right for them, those of us down in the pits haven’t a chance in hell.

  • http://www.waterhabitatretreat.org/ Partha Mandal

    Really a bad experience. They need to improve the system or should keep some other option so that passengers will not suffer.