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…

U.S. ESTA trouble for SAS passengers

It has been more than seven months since the new U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) has been mandatory for airlines that fly citizens of visa-waiver countries to the United States. Yet some carriers’ computer systems are reportedly experiencing serious problems, resulting in denied boarding for travelers with valid ESTAs.

Last week, I received a disturbing e-mail message from an Austrian citizen who had read my previous coverage of ESTA issues. On July 5, she wasn’t allowed on a Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) flight from Stockholm to Chicago, for which the carrier blamed problems with the passenger’s ESTA…

Flight schedule changes overwhelm agents, travelers

Have you been surprised to discover that your flight itinerary has little to do with your originally booked routing or departure and arrival times? Did you accept the changes, even though you didn’t like them? Next time, you could probably do better.

Schedule changes — those made by airline planning departments in advance, not those resulting from irregular operations — have always existed in the industry, but they used to be relatively rare and caused few major disruptions. In recent years, however, they have become so common that I’m actually surprised when a week passes without changes in any of my future trips…

‘Tweaking’ airlines’ yield management

Have you been accused by airline agents of trying to “game the system” by asking if they could open up for mileage redemption seats they obviously won’t sell for cash? Now a top airline executive is encouraging fliers to alert agents when the system fails in its predictability, so it can be “tweaked.”

Before you do that, however, make sure you know what you are talking about — learn all booking codes used by the respective carrier, if you haven’t already, and be able to access and understand its inventory data. Just because there are dozens of open business-class seats months before a flight doesn’t mean you are entitled to an upgrade or an “award” ticket…

US Airways’ website fails at basics

This was supposed to be a column critical of US Airways’ rather peculiar Web site, which is unable to perform basic functions, such as retrieving valid and active tickets. But it also became an appreciation of the carrier’s willingness to explain some of those issues and even try to resolve them.

Every airline’s Web site has limitations and various quirks that annoy travelers — some offer odd routings when you search for flights, others show confusing or even misleading prices, and yet others try to get you to buy things you don’t need instead of taking you straight to the final purchase page…

Hidden perils of airline code-sharing

The practice of one airline selling seats on another carrier’s planes with its own flight numbers has been around for years, and many travelers are familiar with the term “code-sharing.” Yet even experienced fliers continue to be surprised by what amounts to false advertising.

It’s holiday time, and I’d love to write columns about how seamless and hassle-free travel is — which is true for me in most cases — but I keep hearing from readers about questionable airline behavior. In the latest example, LACSA, Costa Rica’s national airline, may have misled some customers…

Airlines curb award tickets

As if “award” plane tickets aren’t hard enough to come by, airlines are putting even more controls on those coveted seats — in some instances understandable, but in others apparently artificial and questionable.

Most major U.S. carriers are reporting record numbers of issued mileage tickets, but they are not a result of more available seats so much as more passengers rushing to beat rises of redemption mileage levels. As I wrote three weeks ago, the value of frequent-flier miles is dropping, and the airlines want them to be used up because they are a balance-sheet liability. With most carriers’ domestic capacity shrinking between 5 percent and 16 percent this fall, the number of mileage seats will naturally be reduced as well…