Here’s a pro workaround for overbooked flights

By | January 14th, 2016

It was bad enough that the flight from Fort Myers, Fla., to Orlando was late, meaning that my client would miss his connection home to San Francisco after a two-day Florida meeting.

But even though he was at the airport early, the United agents told him there were no options to get him home that night. So they gave him the choice of spending the night in Denver or Houston. Neither option was very appealing, but the Denver flight at least got him home earlier in the morning, so he accepted it.

His misfortune is a learning moment for all of us. I’m about to show you a workaround for overbooked flights that the pros use. Bottom line: If you really need to get somewhere, don’t let them tell you a flight is full. It might not be.

Here is the basic rule: Get rebooked on the earliest possible open flight (or most convenient) and then get on the waitlist for the next flight. A lot can happen between when the agent says, “All flights are full,” and when the flight departs.

My client accepted the “full flight” verdict as final and didn’t try to contact me. But I got a message from the airline about the change via Denver, and sent him an email. It’s not that the agents were completely wrong — both connecting flights that night from Houston and Denver were full. Still, I presumed that while they had him returning in the morning, they had at least waitlisted him on the late night Denver to San Francisco flight.

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His response to my email was “no,” because they said it was full and there wasn’t enough connecting time, anyway. Hello?! There were 40 minutes between flights, and while tight, that IS the minimum connecting time in Denver, especially as he had only carry-on luggage.

Of course, there was no guarantee a waitlist would clear, but it didn’t seem like there was any harm in trying. Worst case, he would sit in the airport, not get on and stick with the same morning flight home. But United’s site only showed two standbys for the flight, so I manually added him to the list.


I also told the client I’d check back, because one of the dirty little secrets of airline reservations systems is that open seats don’t automatically always go to those waitlisted, especially on the day of departure.

As it turned out, while on hold with United looking to confirm that he was actually on the waitlist, I suddenly saw a single seat become available and grabbed it. When the reservations agent got on the phone, she cheerfully canceled his morning flight, assigned him a seat, and updated the ticket, with no hassle or penalty.

This phenomenon of open seats not going first to people already wait-listed happens most often on the day of travel. Curiously, I have had two other clients waitlisted separately, one for a week, one for a few days, on a sold-out Lufthansa flight in February. One cleared the list today, the other did not. But looking at the flight, I saw it had three open seats. I simply canceled the waitlist for the second person, and confirmed her with a new booking.

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Confused yet? Yes, it’s a strange system, a very strange system.

The trick may not work for anyone trying to use a mileage or other upgrade, because those seats are booked in an entirely different class of service. Sometimes, if an upgraded flight is canceled, an airline may allow passengers to rebook a full-fare business or first-class seat. But not always.

But the next time you’re stuck at an airport, and you really want to get where you’re going, don’t take “everything is full” as the final answer. If you don’t have a travel agent, you can look online periodically at the airline’s website, or push to be added to the waitlist, either at the airport or by phone. These days, airlines want as much of the travel process automated as possible. And from their point of view it makes sense — the fewer employees they have to pay, the better for their bottom line.

On the other hand, the automated process has issues. But that means a human who understands the issues can sometimes manipulate the system to work around that process.



  • jmj

    can you be my travel agent? To email your client right away upon such a notice is excellent service.

  • Lindabator

    Yep – I had a client whose flights were fine when she left, then a power problem caused a misconnect in the connecting city, and she was already on the flight there. So I worked my magic, got her flight moved to another option, and left her a voicemail – when they were told of the problem before landing, everyone was scrambling. Her phone, however, had the good news – telling her not to bother going to the main desk, and which new flight she was on, Her hubby was all smiles at that. And others wanted to know how SHE rated such service. She of course, stated how she used a travel agent. :)

  • AirlineEmployee

    Sad that before the merger with Continental, United agents at ticket counters and on the phone were always proactive at rebooking people, definitely putting them on wait lists and (gasp), even rebooking them on other airlines (SOP). This was unheard of at CO, easier to say no because their agents didn’t know how to do it. Once on the CO computer (Shares), the NO mentality was forced on UAL agents. Talk about going backwards!

  • Don Spilky

    VERY informative! Thank you!!!

  • Bill___A

    Good article, Janice, thank you.

  • Flywisely

    In the interest of full disclosure, might we tell people what this level of service of using a travel agent would cost? I suppose this ain’t free.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, I had a recent issue where I wanted to change my flight on United to a later date and was even willing to pay the change fee. Went to the agent in the United Club. I was told that “We don’t do that at the airport.” When I replied that it had been done multiple times in the recent past, the response back was “Must have been one of those former Continental people who still think changing schedules for no reason is what we do.”

    Before the merger, I was on a CO flight back from Europe and one segment disappeared from my itenrary. Calling them they volunteered to put me on a Lufthansa flight, one class higher than I booked, getting me home with one less transfer. Saved 4 hours off the travel time. No charge either.

    A trip to England on CO was delayed out of EWR. When the announcement came over the PA, I went to the service desk expecting a long wait and possibly not making it out. They already had me rebooked on the next flight before I got to the counter. No charge.

    Shall I go on?

    What you state about CO is what I experienced in my dealing with UA pre merger. CO almost always took care of me. UA almost always left me stranded when things went wrong.

  • LostInMidwest

    “His response to my email was “no,” because they said it was full and
    there wasn’t enough connecting time, anyway. Hello?!

    Of course, there was no guarantee a waitlist would clear, but it
    didn’t seem like there was any harm in trying. Worst case, he would sit
    in the airport, not get on and stick with the same morning flight home.”

    Oh my God, you people are clueless. Really. The worst that can happen is to sleep at the airport? Instead of going out, getting into a nice hotel, having a nice steak dinner and couple of shots of single malt, sleeping like a king, showering in the morning and getting on morning flight with ASSIGNED seat? That is comparable to you?

    You know what? Your customers are not luggage, sacks of potatoes nor cattle. Having certainty to arrive home with 12-16 hours delay beats by far total uncertainty and being treated like an object at the whim of people who you paid to get you where you were going in the first place.

    No wonder traveling in this country sucks so bad …

  • CasaAlux

    Not what she said at all. She suggested the worst that could happen is he would sit at the airport for 40 minutes, while waiting to see if he got on that flight, and would then go to the hotel, do all those other nice things you listed, and then fly in the morning.

    But your final point is correct. Traveling in the USA sucks big time.

  • Flywisely

    The not-so subtle message here is a travel agent is a guardian angel who will monitor all your flights, and when the flights screw up they will rebook you better than the airline agent can so you don’t have to wait in line and supposedly put you on an earlier waitlisted flight.

    All that for how much fee? I don’t know. I have no idea that’s why I am asking. I have to believe there is a lot more time consuming communication between the TA and the pax for cases like this. What happens if the waitlist clears later, does the pax know it, what to do, etc? Is this really happening by email while the pax is in the airport? So many things can happen that can take up so much time for the TA, thereby increasing costs or fees. In the end of the day, how’s this any different than falling in line and letting the airline do it?

    Maybe if the office is paying then it does not matter. But really, I can see this happening for the general public or majority of the readers of this site.

  • just me

    Would you please restate your advice. I don’t get it and I know it is my limitation. Do you actually buy new ticket on the day of departure and the client travels on old ticket with old price? How does this re-booking actually work if there is no seats or a seat shows up but the booking is on different flight already? This requires access to the booking site – it can only be done with a willing airline agent or travel agent?

  • judyserienagy

    Huh, I had several situations over the years where Continental had me rebooked before I landed at the airport for my connection … once at Christmastime on Delta MIA-SFO on upgraded tickets; that still astonishes me.

  • judyserienagy

    This post sounds like the scuttlebutt before the merger. Continental FAs told us the United people were monsters. United told their passengers the same thing about Continental’s people. I’ve had a lot of laughs with UA/CO crew since the merger.

  • judyserienagy

    On the forums we see both sides: problems with DIY bookings and problems with online travel agents. And, to be fair, we occasionally see a problem with a real travel agent, but not very often.

    I’ve been told that the usual fee to book an airline tix is $25-50. If the air is part of other plans, often there is no TA charge; they are paid by the hotel, cruiseline, etc.

  • judyserienagy

    Let me defend Janice … she did not mean spend the night at the airport, she meant sit at the airport to see if the seat on that last flight cleared. If not, THEN off to the nice dinner and hotel. Calm yourself!

  • Flywisely

    I reckon that there is a huge difference between the role of a TA for original bookings and for reaccommodations when connecting flights get cancelled. The former is the basic job of a TA. The latter is highly debatable.

  • Flywisely

    Well, at least we need to differentiate WAITLIST versus STANDBY and see how each might work.

    Waitlist is a type of reservation for a flight. A TA can add a waitlisted flight segment in one’s PNR. How that will help when done an hour or less before a flight beats me? Doubt the airline will bother to confirm that flight segment.

    Standby is a LIST usually connected to the airline’s departure control system. You just cannot add someone in the Standby List by simply using your GDS.

    United says “Eligible customers can add themselves to the standby list at an airport
    kiosk by selecting “View Flight Options” when reviewing their
    itinerary or by contacting a United airport representative.”
    Therefore, this is something you can DIY and do not need a TA to do for you.

    https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/flightstatus/standby_FAQ.aspx

    So how does this all sort out.
    #1) You obviously want to book your customer on a confirmed flight. You don’t want leaving them in limbo. You are limited to the seats you can find in your GDS. Or, you call and ask United to do it for you. Now remember you cannot FIMS or endorse your client over to another airline. So are you really better or just interfering with the ground staff of the airline? This is a real serious question.

    #2) If your customer wants to hang around the airport and try their luck for a flight that is leaving soon, then have them added to the standby list and send your pax to the gate. Again a pax can do this for themselves, they do not need a TA baby-sitter.

    Now you see why some of us do not think this article is a slam dunk solution. There are so many ifs.

  • MarkKelling

    Just my experiences as a passenger on CO before the merger.

    The food was better too. :-)

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