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.