30 June 2011

Airlines - Reconfirm your flights and tickets

Lan Airline , Calama , Chile
  (photo by Armando Lobos)

Over two years ago I wrote a post recommending that passengers reconfirm airline reservations.

Two things occurred recently that signaled me that it was time to write a follow-up.

First, a client of mine went through a tortuous process of making reservations to Europe on United, which involved United and its code-share partner, and soon to be (maybe) happily-ever-after-merger-partner, Continental.

Second, another travel agent blogger whom I follow, Janice Hough, wrote a post about complications that ensued for one of her clients on a round-trip ticket that involved two carriers.

I just reread my original post from December ’08 and I like it.  I don’t think I need to cover the same turf in detail though I recommend you read it if you haven't already.  The next two paragraphs summarize its main point.

Airline flight schedules can and do change after you’ve bought tickets.  Even though the airline or the travel agency (on-line or bricks-and-mortar) that you booked through is supposed to notify you of schedule changes, the system doesn’t function perfectly.  You may never get calls or emails about schedule changes, or you may accidentally ignore them.

Call the airline – each airline if your trip involves multiple carriers – anywhere from a few days to a week or two prior to departure to make sure the schedule you have is correct.  If something has changed and it’s a problem, it’s much easier to straighten out over the phone ahead of time than at the airport on the day of departure.

But the business of code-shares and two airlines on a ticket bring up another element to reconfirm in addition to the flights themselves: your electronic ticket.

In nearly all cases now you no longer have a paper ticket but rather an electronic ticket stored in the reservation.  For the most part, electronic ticketing is convenient for both passengers and the airlines, because it has eliminated the need to put physical tickets in the hands of passengers prior to travel.

However the system is not foolproof, and in the same way that schedule change notifications are not foolproof.  There are multiple systems that an electronic ticket must navigate, and when more than one airline computer system is involved there is greater potential for a problem.

Here’s why.

Just because airline A codeshares with airline B it doesn’t mean that the airlines use the same computer system.

For example, if you booked a trip on United from San Francisco to Munich using United flight 1577 to Newark and United flight 9254 to Munich in fact you’d be on a Continental flight to Newark and a Lufthansa flight to Munich.  Neither Continental nor Lufthansa use the Apollo system that United does.  And if you booked the trip through the online travel agency Travelocity, the Sabre system would have been the one used by Travelocity to create the reservation and issue the tickets.  That’s three different pairs of electronic hands stirring the pot.

Now just because there are many systems through which the electronic ticket has to jump, it doesn’t mean things won’t work out fine, but it does the mean the potential for a problem increases. 

When you have an itinerary that consists of code-share flights you need to call each airline to reconfirm the schedule, and also to confirm that the electronic ticket is safe and sound in the reservation.  If there is a problem with the schedule or the ticket, contact the airline or travel agency  through which you purchased the ticket originally in order to get it resolved.

Code-share flights and ticketing are a kind of derivative of the interline ticketing system that has existed probably as long as commercial aviation.  I suspect interline ticketing was simply copied from the railroads, which ruled the transportation roost when airlines began operating in the 1930s.

In brief, it simply means that in an itinerary consisting of different airlines, one carrier collects the money and issues the tickets, eventually paying the other carriers through a clearing house.  Usually the carrier issuing the tickets is the first airline in the itinerary, but in the case of international travel it normally would be the first “over the water” carrier.  (If a travel agent issues the tickets it is no different; the agent is an intermediary, but the money still is collected by the first airline in the itinerary.)  Many of the newer, so-called “low cost carriers” either have no interline ticketing agreements (Allegiant) or very few (JetBlue).  Southwest currently has none, but did have one with the now defunct ATA and may in due time have one with Volaris, a low-cost Mexican carrier with which it now collaborates to transport passengers between the U.S. and Mexico.

In practice, airlines now and in the past would try to keep the passenger flying entirely on its own route system but that’s not always possible, especially for international travel, so multi-airline itineraries are the solution.  However the problem that inspired Janice Hough to write her post involved a simple domestic round-trip from Seattle to Washington, D.C., where the outbound (and ticketing carrier) was Alaska Airlines, but the return was on United, and the electronic ticket issued through Alaska for travel on United was not linked correctly to the United flight reservation.

Frankly, this system was simpler and more reliable in the age of paper tickets, but that age is not coming back.  Until (and if) electronic ticketing of code-share and multi-airline itineraries becomes foolproof, your best protection is to reconfirm all of the flights (and tickets) by phone with each carrier well before you begin your trip, and then again while en route.

An ounce of prevention…

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