Think airline travel doesn’t need humans? Think again


The first lesson of this story is a simple one, that if it’s imperative to be somewhere at a given time, plan travel with some buffer time. A day, if possible, but certainly hours.

The other lesson is less simple, because this business trip to London illustrates how humans can triumph in the face of incredibly automated adversity.

It was a straightforward booking, a 1k traveler going San Francisco to Chicago to London connection, booked in business class and upgraded to first. She chose the flights so she could be in London early in the morning and she didn’t want to take a nonstop the night before.

Everything looked fine when she left San Francisco, but just before landing, United canceled her Chicago-London flight, and sent her an email saying she was automatically rebooked on a flight two hours later.

She forwarded the email instantly to me, a bit worried about making her morning meeting, and also if she was still in first class with the upgrade.

Then the fun began. I showed all remaining flights sold out that night, except for two seats at 9 p.m. on United Airlines in coach.

When I got ahold of United at their premium traveler desk, the agent, far from confirming the good news about a first class upgrade, indicated she was rebooked in economy on the later flight — with no seat assignment and nothing showing available.

Plus, surprisingly, the agent added that she showed the client also booked on the 9 a.m. American flight from Chicago to London, even though she landed at 2 p.m., six hours after the American flight departure.

The reservations agent put me on hold to talk to a supervisor, during which time the client called to say a United gate agent told her they had indeed put her on an American flight, but it appeared to have left.

Meanwhile, apparently the United reservations system figured out it didn’t like her being booked on that American flight that it thought had left already, and canceled her upgraded return. When the United agent came back she said they were trying to get her return back.

She also said she had found a single seat at 9 p.m., in business class. So they were working on it, and please hold.

The Twilight Zone was just getting started. The client called back. Said that a second person told her the American flight was eight hours late, now leaving at 6 p.m. Some clever person at the airport manually forced a reservation for her. The time would allow her to make her first meeting; the United 9 p.m. flight would not.

But, there was another complication — she needed the miles for 1k status, and could she get them if United put her on American?

I told her probably, but it’s a gray area; with the new merged airline, I didn’t know the policy and she should ask. But, meanwhile, the United agent I was talking to was trying to get the American flight out of the booking and trying to get her ticket updated. Since I was on hold, I couldn’t ask her.

The client found someone at the United Club to help her, who verified the new flight, called American to confirm the 9 a.m. flight was still there if she wanted to switch back, but wasn’t sure at all if she would get miles if she accepted another airline flight.

This new agent tried to call Mileage Plus, and 45 minutes later still didn’t have a definite answer. So my client decided to bag the meeting, give up on American, and take the sure miles.

Now, even with a lot of humans involved, this trip was a bit of a nightmare. But, left to the automatic rebooking program, at best the traveler would have ended up in coach with a $9,000 ticket.

And, had she just accepted the delayed American flight the first human found her, and had I not called to see what was going on, she would have lost her confirmed return flight. And, MAYBE, they could have rebooked her when she figured it out trying to check in the day before (that’s a lot of ands).

In the end, everything worked out. United’s 9 p.m. flight was a bit early, so she even made most of her meeting. But every step of the way, the trip was salvaged, not because of, but in spite of, the automated systems.

  • Anonymous

    Hi, Janice… you have mentioned, on more than one occasion, the term “a 1k traveler”. Please note: 1k generally means 1,000; although, sometimes it will refer to 1 kilometer. Either way, being a 1k traveler isn’t much to shout about.

  • anon

    Actually it means someone who flies 100k miles on United. It is the second top tier of their ff programme. Poor name for it as what you describe is way more logical.

  • Anonymous

    :) thanks!

  • janice

    Sorry for the jargon, yes, 1k is someone who flies 100,000 miles a year on United. You’re right though, it’s not a great name. All airlines have different terms for their elites, Platinum, Executive, etc. etc. In this case what I was trying to point out is that this was someone who the airline values. Whatever you call high status flyers, they do get treated differently. Although computers can screw up on an equal opportunity basis.

  • Anonymous

    Thank both of you for the polite correction… I do appreciate it!

  • Anonymous

    After 9/11, myriad flights were canceled/consolidated. That happened with our scheduled Qantas flight in mid-October. The automated system got us seats on another flight to Sydney but failed to “notice” that particular flight would arrive more than 3 hours after our Sydney to Alice Springs leg. Fortunately our TA was paying attention (the ONLY time she was on top of things for this trip), called Qantas, and got us seats on an earlier flight. The connection was tight, but Qantas and airport personnel helped us through customs, loaded our bags, and whisked us across the tarmack to the domestic terminal in time for our flight. Computers DO screw up, even for itineraries on the same airline. If not for the human beings involved, we would have lost at least a day of our hard-earned vacation.

  • Anonymous

    This is so confusing. Who put (accommodated) her in the wrong AA flight in the first place? A machine or a a human?

  • AirlineEmployee

    What’s equally galling is the burden or onus being “dumped” on the passenger to keep on top of every error, change, mishap, possibility or lack thereof. People pay for their tickets yet they seem to have to babysit their bookings.