Saturday, July 26, 2014

Adventures at the Airline Ticketing Counter

The experience and attitude of an airport ticketing agent makes all the difference if you need to be rerouted. 

It was hot and humid as I surveyed the late morning build-up of cumulonimbus clouds from my front porch one Sunday in June. I immediately thought of our scheduled 7:25 pm flight to Chicago, then on to Duluth, Minnesota via United Airlines. We'd only have an hour connection in the Windy City because of limited flight options when we booked. There are often weather delays in the Midwest with summer thunderstorms, I thought. But our home finally sold in the Toronto area and, with a request for a quick closing from the buyer, my wife Stacey and I needed to arrange a last-minute trip to Minnesota for house hunting. We'll only have two days to set up accounts and insurance and look at houses, so every moment counts.


Just before leaving for the airport we get the dreaded text. Our first flight is delayed until 8:38 pm departure by "air traffic control," almost an hour-and-a-half late. That means weather. We won't make the Chicago to Duluth leg if it stays on schedule. But instructions recommend we still arrive at least an hour before the regularly-scheduled departure. Maybe the Chicago-Duluth flight will be delayed as well, but Stacey calls our hotel in Duluth and cancels for tonight before the charges are applied to our credit card. Figuring United will give us our options at the ticket counter, we head for the airport as originally scheduled and are dropped off by Stacey's father at Pearson International Terminal 1 about 5 o'clock pm.

It takes us a while to find the United Airlines counter. Electronic signs specify the incorrect zone in the ticketing area. But an airport employee sets us straight after a minute of confusion. There are four or five staffed desks at the United check-in. One has a few agents huddling together in conference. The others are fielding customers, probably other travellers in the same predicament. There is not really a line established; people are waiting in front of the individual desks, and I'm bemused when a customer who'd come a couple minutes after us strolls over to the next available agent.

After a couple of minutes, another of the agents becomes free. He immediately walks over to the adjacent desk for a few words, then ambles around for a full minute before returning to his desk despite the lines of waiting customers. I quietly point this out to Stacey. Is this the government? I immediately have a nervous feeling about this guy. But the agent nonchalantly nods at us to come forward. I'll call him "Fred."

Fred is wearing an orange vest labeled "Security Control Officer." I hope passenger ticketing is his day job. We explain our situation as he looks over our identification documents and enters information on his keyboard. I ask him for our earliest possible option to Duluth if our first flight won't make the connection. He asks us for the Duluth airport code.

"DLH," Stacey says. "Is there an earlier flight to Chicago that will get us there in time for our next leg? We saw something about a 6:40 pm."

Fred doesn't answer that question. "It's not Duluth, Georgia?" he half asks, half states.

"Minnesota." Hasn't this guy already read through our itinerary?

"Is that a small airport?" I nod and tell him three gates, then mention that we'll be happy if we can get anywhere that will get us on a morning flight to Duluth. He taps for a moment, then says "I don't think you'll get there early tomorrow." I ask if that means there isn't an early-morning flight available from Chicago to Duluth, and he nods

"We only have a couple days to look for somewhere to live," Stacey says. If we get there too late, that won't leave us much time." She looks at me. "We'd better let Lynn (our realtor) and the car people know we won't make it to Duluth tonight." Then she asks Fred if a missed connection related to "traffic control" means United can't help with accommodation, hoping that's not the case.

Fred confirms that's only for equipment-related delays or at-fault delays related to the airline. We were pretty sure the text we received before leaving for the airport meant weather was the issue, and we're not surprised.

"OK," I say. "We were on the hook for a hotel tonight ourselves, anyway. We'll find somewhere near an airport or sleep in the terminal wherever we can get to tonight." I turn to Fred and ask again, "What routing option will get us to Duluth the earliest tomorrow?"

"What do you consider late?"

Stacey answers. "Well, we need to meet our Realtor at noon, so maybe later than 11 am?"

"I think 11 is early," says Fred.

I'm exasperated. "But when is the earliest we can get there? I mean, what's late? Is it noon tomorrow, 2 pm, what?" This is at least the second time I've asked.

"There's nothing that gets there early tomorrow," he says again, while staring at the monitor and pecking the keyboard. We try another tack and ask if there are alternative routes. "Can we make it as far as Minneapolis tonight?" Stacey asks.

"There was a 6:40 pm flight that might have made your Chicago-Duluth leg on time, but that just closed."

That wasn't Stacey's question, but isn't it one of the very first things we asked, nearly twenty minutes ago? Did we just miss our window of opportunity in that time? Stacey repeats my mental questions verbally, but Fred just says, "It's all zeroed out. It doesn't look like you'll get to Duluth tomorrow."

Stacey and I confer briefly. Maybe if we can make it to Minneapolis, we can rent a car there. The drive to Duluth isn't much more than a couple of hours. We just have to hope one of the rental agencies has a car available for one-way. Our return flight Wednesday morning is from Duluth, not Minneapolis. "Is it possible to get to Minneapolis instead tonight or early tomorrow morning?"

"What are the call letters for that airport?" our helpful agent asks. Don't these folks have the major airport codes memorized? We're not the ones sitting in front of a computer. Stacey answers "MSP."

"MSB?" asks Fred.

"M-S-P. Minneapolis-St. Paul." My wife looks flustered. Stacey was in training for an airline call center years ago and had to memorize all the major North American three-letter airport designations in a couple of days. A teaching position at a nearby college ended her travel career soon thereafter, but she still knows several of the airport location identifiers offhand.

Fred taps on his keyboard for a while. I notice that while the other agents are constantly consulting each other or seeking help, no one asks Fred for advice, and he doesn't ask any for himself. He doesn't say anything for a while, then "There are no flights from here."

"There must be flights to Minneapolis from Toronto," I say. "You're telling me no other carrier goes there?" I've done that route probably a dozen times.

"We'll go ahead and try to find one?" he offers at his keyboard.

"No, I mean Minneapolis is one of North America's largest airports. There are definitely direct flights from Toronto on other carriers. Delta for sure." I know that's not an option today on United. "If we can't get to Duluth, when is the earliest we can get to Minneapolis?"

Fred keeps lightly typing. But he seems to be staring into space now, and I'm not sure the keystrokes have any purpose behind them. "The flights are zeroed out for the next couple days," he says after a couple minutes. "You won't be able to get there tomorrow."

Where is "there" I'm wondering. "Did you check with other carriers?" I ask. "We can't even get to Minneapolis?"

"I checked with the other possible carriers," says Fred. "Everything is zeroed out the next few days." Well, now at least the definition of "late" is starting to be clearer. I fret. A few days will run up against the US Independence Day holiday. Surely, if we don't get to the Midwest now, we'll run into an overbooking wall then.

"But a couple days will get us to Minnesota right when we need to depart, and I'm not sure if our tickets are refundable or not," says Stacey. "Is there anything United can do for us?"

"I don't think you'll get there this week." Fred points across to a booth across the way, next to an "i" (for information). "You can reach the United help desk from those white phones over there. They'll definitely give you a full refund." I sense we're being dismissed.

Stacey seems unsure and says so, but Fred reiterates there's nothing more he can do, and we'll definitely get a refund. I'm also dubious, but maybe we can at least get a voucher for future travel if we can't make it to Minnesota at all. We may have to find temporary housing online and look for the real thing after we move. As we leave for the phones I briefly consider warning the hopeful looking person waiting in line behind us, but Fred's too close.

The United phone bank is a museum of 80s-era corded handsets. Damn, Dad must be almost back to Burlington by now. While Stacey cancels our car rental for tonight, I try the first phone. Silence. The next also doesn't work, nor two others. Ah, Fred, the phones you sent us to haven't functioned for a decade. Finally, the fifth and last phone has a dial tone. I start the voice-activated refund process as Stacey finishes updating her mother on her mobile. Suddenly, I hang up. "Let's think about what we're doing before we go through with this," I say. Stacey agrees. We only have a limited time to find housing before our move, and we need to take control of the situation. Even one day looking for houses is better than a cancelled trip. Besides, Stacey just checked the itinerary, and the tickets are definitely non-refundable.

By now we've lost about 35 minutes. We decide to get on a different line and hope for a better outcome with another ticket agent. We get on the line as far from Fred as possible. After a few minutes we're beckoned up to the counter by "Erica." Stacey explains our situation and says, "I hope you're a miracle worker."

While Erica methodically works through possible itineraries, we query her on the worst-case scenarios. No, we can not necessarily expect a refund, especially based on our ticket status and a weather delay. If necessary, we need to call United's 1-800 number from a pay phone, not the bank of ancient phones we were directed to.

Shortly after engaging with Erica we notice Fred head into what appears to be the break room, not to be seen again. Maybe he was done for the day.

Erica keeps plugging away, looking to find us options. We're in good hands. There's little more to record. Hard work doesn't make good press. I notice the female agent at the next desk regularly seeks Erica's advice. The patient customer the other agent is working with was there soon after we'd started with Fred.

In the end, Erica has found a solution after several phone calls with the help-desk of a competitor airline. Our original delayed flight may get us to Chicago just in time to catch another United leg to Minneapolis tonight. Apparently they're not all "zeroed out." We'll have to hustle for the gate upon landing, but if we don't make it Erica has protected two seats for us on an early morning flight from Chicago to Minneapolis that we can ticket at a United desk upon arrival. Either option will put us on a 9:15 am Delta flight to Duluth that will arrive just after 10 am. We'll lose no more than a couple hours off our schedule, and we'll just need to find a hotel in Minneapolis or Chicago tonight.

Erica was that miracle worker it seemed at first, but in truth "miracles" are the fruit of conscientious work. Her efforts ensured we had the time to drop paperwork off at schools, set me up on bank accounts, get insurance quotes and view 16 houses. We put an offer in on one of them at the end of our second and last day.

We spent almost 100 minutes at the United desk, about 65 of them with Erica, but most of what I remember from our time with her is guarded hope, progress, then ultimately relief. I sharply recall a lot more from the shorter, frustrating encounter with "Fred," all of it stressful and pointless. The encounter reinforced a few key points we've learned from previous experience:

  • If you're going to miss a connection, never be afraid to ask for a second opinion or a supervisor when looking for travel options.
  • Manners and patience are a must, but you paid a lot for that ticket. Make sure the service provider puts in the effort to "get you there."
  • The benefit of early airport arrival is seen time-and-again. Knowing there would be problems, we arrived over 3.5 hours before departure in this case.
  • Keep your entire itinerary handy, so you can alert downstream providers such as hotel and car rental agency.
  • Research alternative flight options--including layovers--before you arrive at the airport. Your agent may not know offerings by other carriers.