All U.S. domestic airlines, eventually, ended up offering waivers to change flights this past weekend with Hurricane Irene. In many cases, travelers had no choice — their flights were canceled. Some of those flights were automatically rebooked, sometimes not.
But the waivers were small comfort to passengers who couldn’t reach their airline or who got to the airport only to find lines that stretched around the terminal. Those who went online and either didn’t like their rebooked flights, or saw that they weren’t given any options weren’t happy either.
A local San Francisco news channel on Saturday night showed many travelers preparing to sleep in line. Some of those interviewed told the reporter they had already been there for hours.
As the hurricane approached, there was always the option for anyone who’d booked on line to book a new ticket (if they could find one) and to try to change their own flight. But in many cases, even those who could find new flights still found themselves needing to get in line or call to have the ticket reissued.
American Airlines actually automatically exchanged some canceled tickets according to what their computer chose as backup. This was a great service for those who liked the alternatives offered.
The problem, however, was for passengers who didn’t want that automatically-booked alternative. Because the ticket was then completely in American’s control, further changes, by anyone, became almost impossible.
But during this mess, travel agents were also able to access alternative flight inventory and had the same waiver policy. Travel agents had the ability to reuse issued tickets so a passenger could get an advance boarding pass and skip the long check-in lines completely.
In one case, I reissued a ticket from Philadephia to San Francisco four times, as the flights kept getting canceled. Eventually, the client made it home for his cousin’s wedding.
In addition, with some airlines, especially United/Continental and US Airways, agents were able to rebook with partner carriers.
Before I get a lot of comments about stupid travel agents, I admit, not all agents know what they are doing. This is true of any profession, and particularly perhaps those without strict licensing requirements.
Plus, not all agents are good at booking airline tickets. Someone who may be great at planning a day-to-day itinerary in Tuscany may not understand the nuances of code shares and reading flight information.
Additionally, not all agents are accessible after hours; but many are (usually for a fee). Curiously enough, this weekend storm, individual agents, while perhaps not available 24/7 were often a better option than the nationwide airline help desks. One very good tour operator I deal with had 45-minute and longer waits on their emergency line.
Remember, travel agents can only change their own tickets. Passengers who thought when booking that they could book the ticket without a service fee and then called agents after the fact, were out of luck, unless they wanted to buy a new ticket.
Today, Hurricane Irene has passed on. But, the backlog is likely to continue for a while. (One client I rebooked from Saturday had US Airways offer him a flight home from Charlotte on Wednesday.)
So what’s the solution for next time?
First, for those who somehow navigated this mess on their own, and have done so in the past, if it works, great. But for those who had or are still having a nightmare time of it, ask around for a good travel agent.
Sometimes corporate travel agencies will do personal travel, so that’s a possibility for referrals — for those happy with their business travel arrangements. Ask friends and colleagues who are reporting stories of how they got bailed out during the storm, for the names of their travel agent.
For anyone trying to make the acquaintance of a new agent, be warned, as the travel industry tries to pick up the pieces (and sort out the paperwork) the day after a storm weekend might not result in the fastest callback.