Airlines abuse check-in deadlines

SJO 013Have you ever been told by an airline agent that you had missed the check-in deadline, even though you arrived at the airport well before the published cutoff time? That happened to dozens of Spirit Airlines passengers this week, but it’s nothing new. Agents have been abusing customers for years and have even made them pay penalties.

A former intern of mine told me once that he was returning home to Washington from Las Vegas with a friend when an agent declared it was too late to check them in. At least the agent was honest and admitted that the fault wasn’t theirs. Technically, there was still time before the deadline, but the flight was overbooked. Because the two passengers didn’t have seat assignments and the plane was already full, there was no space for them — despite the fact that they were holding confirmed and paid tickets for the flight.

The agent was not only honest but incredibly arrogant, making the students pay a $150 change fee each to get on another flight. The young men didn’t know better as to stand up for their rights and ponied up the penalties. So the airline, which had overbooked the flight and made money from more passengers than there were seats for on the aircraft, ended up making even more money from apparently inexperienced travelers…

‘Gardening’ your airline reservation

Many travelers consider all their flight-planning work done once they buy a plane ticket, and they don’t think about it again until it’s time to fly. In most cases, that’s a recipe for trouble. There are many things that could go wrong and ruin your trip long before you arrive at the airport, and paying just a little attention — I call it “gardening” your reservation — and knowing how to handle those issues in advance could prevent a travel disaster.

Let’s begin with the simple things. As you may have discovered, sometimes there are no seats available for you to select at ticketing. That could be a result of overselling the cabin, or the only seats left may require an additional fee. Many fliers simply leave it at that, hoping for a seat on the departure day.

It doesn’t take much to do better than that. Whether you have no assignment or are stuck in a middle seat, chances are a decent seat will open up before your travel day, as other passengers get upgraded or cancel their reservations. All you have to do is check the seat map from time to time. Convenience and comfort are very important to me during a trip, and I don’t like to leave anything to chance. That means there are certain things I have to do to “tend” to my bookings, so that any potential issues can be resolved in advance…

Did United choose the best rez system?

The decision by United Airlines’ management to use Continental’s Shares reservations system for the merged carrier has been causing serious problems since its implementation last weekend. So the news that the airline is working on a new version of its IT platform, integrating some of the features of the pre-merger United’s Apollo system, is very welcome, indeed.

It was hardly surprising that CEO Jeff Smisek and his team chose to keep Shares, given that most policies and practices of the combined carrier have followed the way Continental did business under Smisek. But in this case, the decision made good financial sense — Continental has owned Shares for years, while United paid Travelport, the company that owns Apollo…

Fighting airlines’ attempts to overcharge

How do you know that an airline agent is trying to charge you much more than necessary to change a ticket? Two agents attempted that on me just yesterday, but they quickly realized they were messing with the wrong guy and retreated from their positions. The difference was thousands of dollars.

In my book, I explain why it helps to know what exactly you want before calling an airline, and more importantly, to know the outcome of an agent’s actions. I never trust agents to tell me how much I need to pay for anything — I call them simply to accomplish something I can’t do online. A couple of months ago, I issued a Business Class ticket for a client who flew the outbound portion but had to cancel the return. I called the airline to take him off that flight and said I wasn’t ready to rebook yet but would call back when I was…

Airlines neglect non-flying experience

Why do numerous airlines, including those aspiring to be among the world’s best, keep focusing on improving the in-flight experience, but don’t seem to care what kind of service their customers receive before they even step foot on a plane?

It’s high time they understood that travelers are getting smarter, and mediocre reservation agents won’t be tolerated much longer. In April, I wrote about my disastrous experience with Singapore Airlines’ award-booking agents, who were so poorly trained they might as well have worked for a third-world carrier. In May, I mentioned British Airways’ arrogance and refusal to offer the slightest apology after losing the luggage of two First Class passengers who had paid $12,500 per ticket…

British Air, Iberia’s dysfunctional merger

One of this column’s goals is to point out nuisances in the air travel system and help you avoid them or minimize their negative impact. As I welcome the many readers who have become subscribers since my book, “Decoding Air Travel,” came out, I’d like to tell you about one such nuisance.

As my regular readers are well aware by now, I always know in what booking class a future ticket will be issued. I search for availability in that booking class and choose flights with available seats. That’s why, even if I have to make a reservations with an agent on the phone, I know how much the ticket will cost before I make the call…

Singapore Air’s inept agents, dark side

My previously high regard for Singapore Airlines has been sinking quickly in the last week. Dealing with its agents regarding an award ticket has been one of my worst airline experiences in years. Now we learn that the carrier did little to help a passenger who suffered a heart attack during a flight last month.

When I wrote about Singapore’s “maddening perfection” in September, I pointed out that it deserves all the accolades it gets for its on-board products and in-flight services. However, the airline hasn’t quite understood that being a global first-class company means much more than that. I usually try to stay calm with airline agents on the phone and give them the time they need, even when it’s clear they are not very good…

The risks of third-party airline bookings

Long before the current American Airlines campaign to shake up the data distribution system, airline agents often refused to change tickets issued by travel agencies and third-party websites, such as Expedia and Orbitz. Dealing with those companies’ agents can be frustrating, and many fliers call the airlines for help directly, only to be sent back to the “original booking source.” Why?

Because once the airline takes control of the ticket, it effectively releases the original booking source from its responsibilities as the issuing agent — and when the booking source loses control of the ticket, it will no longer keep track of your reservation. So if there is a schedule change, that source won’t alert you, because it won’t know itself that a change has affected you…

The peculiarities of airline agent training

It’s one of the unavoidable realities of airline customer service that three agents will often give you three different answers to the same question. But I recently discovered a more rare phenomenon: Dozens of agents consistently doing something the wrong way. Was it lack of knowledge or deliberately ignoring the rules?

Before I continue, let me say that there are numerous superb airline agents to whom I’m grateful for unknowingly teaching me the ropes of the complex air travel system for years by satisfying my insatiable curiosity. I’ve also praised U.S. agents for handling rebooking during irregular operations better than their colleagues at foreign airlines…