The one thing you must do before leaving for the airport

By | February 12th, 2016

Being a travel agent can make you paranoid. But as the old line goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

In this case, I’m talking about day-of-departure delays and schedule changes.

In theory, airlines let you know if there are problems with your flight. And many apps purport to do the same thing. But in my experience, it’s a very inexact science.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, I was traveling with two other people — all of us with early morning flights to different places — and we had all checked in online the day before. Before we left our friends’ home, however, I quickly logged into our agency computer from my laptop to check the flights.

And when I pulled up my first companion’s flight, I saw her 7:30 a.m. American Airlines flight showing canceled in her record, with a rebooking on a flight three hours later. I quickly checked the flight itself, and it was operating, along with the connecting flight out of Charlotte to Roanoke. Lo and behold, there was even one seat left on the New Orleans to Charlotte flight, and several on the second flight, so I rebooked the original flights and called the airline from the car.

The American phone agent had no idea what had happened. She said she showed both, that the passenger had been changed to the later flights, and also that there was a new booking on the original flights. At the airport, the check-in agent told us the plane was overbooked and the last people who checked in were automatically bumped. Now that is not the way the rules are supposed to work. But, in any case, the agent decided to accept the new booking to the original flights and simply said my friend needed to get a seat assignment at the gate.

Related story:   Are helicopters unfit for flight?

So it worked out okay in the end, and at the gate my friend got an even better seat than she had originally booked. But had I not seen the canceled flight and rebooked that last seat before getting to the airport, the check-in agent would have told her the flight was full, and she probably wouldn’t have gotten on the plane.

Researching the situation later, I found that American had briefly canceled the Charlotte to Roanoke flight, then reinstated it. At that point, the system didn’t see the same fare class availability on the ticketed flights, so my friend had automatically been put on the later flights. Another of those “to err is human; to really screw things up requires a computer” moments.

Just for a further reminder about checking flights before leaving for the airport — in trying to fix the one problem, I missed out on seeing a 2:00 a.m. email from United announcing a one hour flight delay due to “maintenance.” Fortunately, I had a two- and-a-half-hour connection in Houston, so no harm done. (The translation of “maintenance” turned out to be a flat tire. And United had no spares, so they had to fly one in from Houston. No joke.)

Double-checking if your flight is on time before leaving home won’t solve every delay or cancellation problem, as many are last-minute. But it sure can’t hurt! And even when you’re close to the airport, any head start you or your travel agent can get on fixing a problem may make the difference between being successfully rebooked and spending a long time in line and/or hanging around the airport.

Related story:   American Airlines told me the fare was $169. Then it charged me $1069

  • Stephen0118

    Your last incident regarding the flat tire on the United flight reminded me of what happened to me this past New Year’s Day. I was scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia airport on Southwest. We waited on the plane and they discovered a fuel leak. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the maintenance crew needed in New York since it’s not their home base. They had to fly out mechanics from one of their bases to New York so they had to delay the flight from its original departure of 10:30 am to 4:30 pm.

  • flutiefan

    i can’t stress enough how right you are.

    For the record: i get many passengers who are angry that they never received info about their flight delay/cancellation. when i look in their reservation, inevitably it’s one of 2 reasons:
    1) they put their email down as their “contact information”, and yet they never check their email for updates.
    2) it’s a travel agency booking, and the TA has their *own* 800 number in the phone field. this is infuriating to not only the customer, but to me, as i deal with the customer’s wrath.

    i implore everyone who uses a TA to verify that their OWN cell number is in the day-of contact field. even call the airline to have it updated.

  • Tom McShane

    I find it heart-warming that a travel agent still flies. It seem to me that it is, like Dr. Johnson (or was it Oscar Wilde?) said, the triumph of hope over experience.

  • Tom McShane

    Janice, you mentioned that last in, first out bumping procedure as being not the way it is supposed to work. How is it supposed to work?
    I recall reading, some years ago, that when overbooked, the airline HAS to keep raising the compensation for giving up your seat on that flight until nobody is involuntarily denied boarding. Was that ever true? Is it now?
    I suspect that, in actual practice, who gets bumped is mostly at the whim of the gate agent. The agent is essentially at a lonely outpost with a short time to load the flight.

  • leftcoastsportsbabe

    My point was just that they should not bump the day before. At the airport they start offering compensation and then if they can’t get it THEN they can use whichever way they want. Usually they bump people without seat assignments.

  • John McDonald

    email get thru 99.9999% of the time, even if they go into junk mail box. Phones – nuh.

  • John McDonald

    spoke to a real travel agent recently & asked were they having a hard time with OTA’s.
    They said, not at all. Many people are sick of OTA sites & our private fares are cheaper 905 of the time anyway & in fact some of the fares they sell to USA can never ever be found online, eg. OZ/USA on one airline & back on another. For example, you can’t even buy it from either airline online.
    Also as it was early February, I asked when I could book a flight to USA for early January 2017, back late January 2017 & they right now is always cheapest. But I said, when I looked online, most OTA’s don’t have flights loaded beyond the 1st few days of January & they said
    “aren’t they hopeless” flights with most airlines are now loaded til the end of January & it’s always 1st in best dressed for Xmas school holidays. She went onto say, the very cheapest fares, often sell out the day they are loaded. (most airlines load a day, everyday, unlike Southwest)
    Xmas school holidays in Australia, run from late November to late January(up to 9 weeks for some schools not all)

  • flutiefan

    yes the messages get through. my point is that people don’t bother to check their email.

  • flutiefan

    yes it’s usually last checked in, first bumped. some airlines look at ticket prices in their bumping order, as well.
    however it shouldn’t be done the day before unless there is a known equipment downgrade, which is highly unusual that much in advance.
    and no, the compensation does not have to be increased. there are DOT minimums, but airlines have their own settings for what they give. gate agents don’t decide. if someone doesn’t take the offer i’m authorized to give, i must involuntarily deny.
    finally, HELL NO it’s not at my “whim” who gets bumped. that’s irrational. there is a procedure in place and we must follow it or face stiff fines by the DOT. we don’t do it for fun or for ease. we do what our policies dictate.

  • John McDonald

    even in USA where an airline could employ a Mexican over the border for nothing (wages are much higher in Australia than either USA or Mexico) why would an airline try to call you & get voicemail or no answer or whatever.
    Emails get thru, so do most SMS’s. My phone beeps when get a new email or SMS. Step into the 21st century.

  • Tom McShane

    Thank you for your input. Could you tell us what those policies are? Does each airline determine its own bumping policies? It seems rather mysterious. Can the airlines set any policy they want and then make sure to follow that policy to stay out of trouble with the DOT? What lengths must your airline go to in order to try and entice passengers to give up their seats so that no one on a particular flight is involuntarily denied boarding.

  • Flywisely

    Janice said “I rebooked the original flights and called the airline from the car”.
    I was wondering WHY she (the TA) had to call the airline if the pax was already rebooked?

  • Éamon deValera

    I thought it was going to suggest a good stiff drink before leaving for the airport.

  • leftcoastsportsbabe

    i made the booking and then called the airline to ask what was going on. Also, even though i had rebooked the flights I wanted to make sure the airline would honor the new booking and that it showed correctly in the computer. Had done this really quickly :-)

  • flutiefan

    Yes every airline has their own policy and formula, but there are minimums and standards set by DOT.
    We try to get volunteers but we cannot raise the incentive. There is a strict formula we use (it’s pretty basic) and we do not deviate. If nobody responds to our pleas, we have to involuntarily deny boarding and pay it out.

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.