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.