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Flight delays and cancellations are a reality of air travel. Whether it is due to weather, air traffic control or a mechanical issue, they can royally mess up your travel plans and put a damper on any vacation. However, when airlines cancel due to mechanical reasons, they are much more likely to help you re-book since it is their own fault and due to circumstances within their control whether than an “act of God.”
This is the story of my experience this past Saturday evening when my flight had a mechanical issue at the last minute and nearly derailed my New Year’s Eve trip plans. If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you might have seen the issues I ran into and how I dealt with them, but for the rest of you, here’s a synopsis of what went down and how I was able to deal with it successfully.
Your situation may vary and undoubtedly I was treated well by American Airlines because I’m an Executive Platinum elite, but my hopes with sharing this story is that you think outside of the box whenever you’re faced with your next delay or cancellation.
If I hadn’t presented the agents helping me with re-booking options that I had found myself, I likely would have ended up missing a day of vacation because the flight I was originally ultimately got cancelled, even though they said it would be just a several-hour delay.
Costa Rica Here I Come! Or Not…
I’m currently in Costa Rica, but almost didn’t get here on time due to a cracked windshield on my American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Miami. I planned to fly down on a Saturday evening, was going to spend the night with friends, and then continue on to Liberia in Costa Rica at 10:20am the next morning.
Everything was going smoothly – I was enjoying a Yuengling in the joint British Airways/American Airlines lounge at PHL when American agents told us that the Miami flight was ready for boarding and would be departing early (it almost sounded too good to be true).
The flight boarded in an orderly fashion (rare) and you could tell everyone was excited to leave the cold for warmer climes. However, once the last person was settled in the pilot came on and said, “Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the windshield just cracked so everyone should get off and await further instruction.” That’s a big problem, so I knew immediately, it’s go time!
Tip 1: Once you know about a delay or cancellation, call the airline immediately and snag seats on alternate flight before those who wait to be manually processed at the airport. This is when elite status helps greatly – airlines will go above and beyond to make sure their frequent flyers are taken care of, but even if you don’t have status, it never hurts to ask and remember to be as friendly as possible.
The plane groaned in unison and I immediately dialed the American Airlines Executive Platinum desk. Even though the flight delay hadn’t posted yet, the friendly rep took my word for it and started looking at re-booking options. There were no other AA flights out of Philadelphia to Miami and all of the US Airways options to surrounding airports were sold out (it was the Saturday after Christmas after all).
I was the first person to get off the plane, so I decided to ask the gate agent what their plan was and she quickly barked at me to sit down with my boarding pass and wait. Yea, I don’t think so. Every second that you wait to be accommodated, savvier people are snatching up inventory so your options decrease as time goes on.
Tip 2: Always ask to be protected on alternate flights. Airlines can reserve seats for you on another flight and still keep your current flight. It is like having the best of both worlds – if your current flight does go out before the flight in which you are protected, you still keep your original seats. If an agent re-books you on the alternate flight, you lose your original reservation (including upgrade) and if you want to switch back to your original flight, there will need to be availability.
I walked back to the lounge while still on the phone with AA and the lounge agent offered to assist, but at this point I was getting protected on the 6am before that inventory disappeared. At this point I figured we would wait to see what happened with our flight, but considering Philadelphia isn’t an AA hub, I knew they would not have an extra plane to swap in. Even though they did just merge with US Airways, their fleets are still operating separately and US doesn’t even fly 737-800 aircraft, so I doubted there would be a quick fix.
Tip 3: Think outside the box. Look at availability from other airports and on other airlines into surrounding cities. While you may incur more expenses getting to another airport, you can always ask to to have the taxi/train comped by the airline since the delay/cancellation is their fault.
After I hung up with the rep, I started to doubt our 6am option, because it would only give us an hour connection time between our arrival and the connecting flight to Costa Rica, and the next one to Liberia wasn’t until 5pm on Sunday. I really didn’t want to lose a day on vacation, so I started looking at buying a Spirit airlines ticket and refunding my AA tickets, but everything out of PHL was sold out. I then thought about flying out of Newark, which is a 1-hour train ride or ~90 minute drive. There were no AA options (at this point it was 6:30pm), but there was a 9:25pm United flight with 2 open seats in first class. For this trip I had purchased a discounted first class seat on AA, because on many leisure routes you can buy up to first for a nominal difference and the first class fare gives 1.5 Elite Qualifying Points and a mileage bonus, which makes it worth it to me.
Tip 4: Use Expertflyer.com to look up your own re-routing options. Phone agents often make mistakes when looking at flight schedules, especially on partner airlines, so knowing what inventory is and is not available can save you time and potentially be the difference in getting to your destination or not.
I called back the Executive Platinum desk and it took a little while, but the agent was able to pull up the United flights (originally she said there were none available, but thanks to Expertflyer, I was able to see there were seats and gave her the exact flight number and time and encouraged her to try again). She called United and after about 20 minutes on hold I started to get nervous because I had to leave for 30th St. Station ASAP or else risk missing the 7:19pm Amtrak to Newark, which would get me in at 8:22pm, which would be perfect for the 9:25pm flight. I Mapquested driving directions to EWR and it said 2 hours and I wouldn’t have enough time to get a rental car and a taxi/Uber would be insanely expensive.
Tip 5: Always make sure the phone rep has your contact information in case you get disconnected. It is incredibly frustrating to be on hold as you are being rebooked and then have the phone cut out, which has happened to me several times in the past.
The agent confirmed that we were on the flight in first class and that she needed to continue ticketing it, but she would go “busy” so that I could hangup and she could call me back if there were any issues. At this point I got an email from AA saying the flight would be delayed until 1:30am, which would mean a 4:30am arrival, which is pretty miserable. It wouldn’t be long enough to sleep in Miami and the lounges wouldn’t even be open at that point. I then decided I’d rather take the chance and get to Newark and if that didn’t work, we could always come back and take the 1:30am flight – if it even went out that late, which I doubted since the crews would probably time out. I told my friend our plan, when I realized we had one issue – my friend had checked a bag!
The lounge agents tried calling the gate to see if they could pull my friend’s bags off, but they had taken their phone off the hook (helpful). They tracked down someone who said they were going to pull everyone’s off and to go to the gate. My friend ran to the gate, but it was a zoo and there was no baggage coming, but we had to leave then in order to make the United flight. Back at the lounge we asked the agent to help us and to make sure the bag would be put on the flight or on the 6am normal departure. She asked if we had elite status and I explained I was Executive Platinum and she wrote down our info and said she would take care of it. At that point, you just need to go with the flow and hope it works out. Even if you do check bags, I’d also recommend having all the essentials and one change of clothes in your carry-on in case a situation like this happens.
To get to the 30th Street train station in Philadelphia to catch our train to Newark, I fired up Uber and the driver was awesome and got us to 30th Street Station with 6 minutes to spare. While in the car I booked Amtrak tickets on my iPhone and the email confirmation included a PDF of the tickets so we just showed them to the conductor and he scanned them, which avoided having to mess around with a kiosk to print tickets.
The train ride went well except for the fact that the bar cart was out of beer (!) and when I logged into AA.com, I noticed we were both in economy. I was glad we were re-ticketed, but I had paid for a first class seat, so ideally I wanted to fly first class and the agent had told me that is where we’d be seated.
Tip 6: Leverage social media if you can’t get through on the phone or at the airport.
Not wanting to sit on hold as a phone rep contacted United, I Tweeted @Americanair to see if they could switch me into first class on the United flight and while they immediately responded, they informed me that the Twitter team can not rebook on other airlines. It was worth a shot!
By the time I called back, there was only 1 first class seat and the agent pushed back, telling me we had actually purchased an instant upgrade economy seat. I pushed back and said “I went to AA.com and the fares I purchased were listed under first class, so I don’t care how AA handles that on the back-end, but as a consumer I purchased first class per your website, so can you please (in the nicest voice possible) accommodate me in that class?”
Tip 7: When rebooked on another airline, always get the reservation and ticket number for the other airline. Often wires get crossed and the other airline may not be able to see your reservation, so have as much documentation as possible.
She agreed and then called United and snagged the last seat for me and put my friend in Economy Plus. She then gave us the United reservation and ticket numbers in case there were any issues checking in. Sweet!
Tip 8: Add your frequent flyer number on the re-booked airline. You can often double dip and get the original miles for your flight you were supposed to take and also on the rebooked airline.
Check-in was easy and the United agent confirmed everything was good on their end. Now, our United flight was delayed by a couple minutes, but it still meant we would get to Miami at 12:30am and have some decent rest before we had to go to the airport at 8:30am. However, right before the door closed, the gate agent came on and asked me if I had my ticket number, because he showed that there was no payment by American for my ticket. Thankfully I had emailed myself the information the AA rep gave me and that sufficed. It would have been nerve-wracking if at the last minute I had to get off the plane to handle that and as much as I’d hope United would just let me go, I had a snafu with a United airlines award ticket where Swiss airlines denied me boarding due to a ticketing glitch. FYI To this day, United has refused to respond to my numerous inquiries into the incident and I never received any compensation (though I did get a refund).
Tip 9: Submit for original routing credit so you get the miles for your original flight.
It wasn’t my fault that American had to re-route me on United, so I should still get the full credit for the flight I originally booked. I was able to tweet the @AmericanAir Twitter team and they confirmed they submitted my request to AAdvantage Customer Service, so I’m hoping those miles post without having to follow-up.
Tip 10: If you get downgraded, submit a complaint so you get compensation. If you book a first class flight, you should fly in first class. If not, you should submit a claim to be reimbursed for the difference in what you paid and what you received. Note: This doesn’t work for elite complimentary upgrades.
The United flight went off without a hitch and when we went to Miami airport the next morning my friend’s bags were waiting in the baggage office. We were able to get on our originally scheduled MIA-Liberia flight and I’m currently looking out the window at 90-degree breezy weather. Our original flight ended up getting rescheduled until 6pm the next day and while the 6am flight would have worked, it would have meant much less sleep and a hotel airport stay vs. getting to stay with friends and get a somewhat normal night’s sleep.
Speaking of which, I think it is time to hit the pool, so I hope you find these tips useful and that you also share your rebooking tips.