Yesterday I flying home from Philadelphia and ran into one of the more severe delays I have experienced in recent memory. United’s afternoon flight to Houston was delayed by over three hours. In the end, it all turned out well, and I’m happy about how United and all parties involved handled the situation. But it is another opportunity for me to remind you of some tips when facing a similar situation.
Step 1: Find a Safe Fix
The original delay of one hour was manageable, but when it was extended to over three hours because they needed to fly in a part, I knew I was sure to miss my connection in Houston.
I didn’t dare get in the line of passengers asking to be rebooked. It was 50+ people deep. I also didn’t want to wait until arriving in Houston, by which point the available inventory might disappear. I called United and was directed to the Premier desk with no hold time. The only other option via Chicago was also delayed, so she kept me on my original flight to Houston with my upgrade intact and rebooked me on a later flight to Seattle, arriving close to midnight.
Heels First Travel wrote recently about researching available flights before you call to get rebooked. While that is often a good idea, there aren’t a lot of options flying United out of Philadelphia, and the airline has plenty of hubs along the way. I was confident that the agent would do just as well without my input.
Step 2: Look for Something Better
Fearing Megan’s wrath if she had to pick me up that late from the airport, I next went to the gate for the Chicago flight, which was around the corner and fairly empty. My experience is that the agent at the airport has a better idea of just how bad the situation is and is more likely than a phone rep to offer flights on another carrier. The local supervisor had picked this gate to establish a mini command center and make sure she had enough staff on hand when both those flights departed later that day.
I didn’t press my luck with someone who looked as stressed as she did. So I kept things flexible and just asked if there was any way to get me home earlier than midnight. While she balanced the radio on one ear and the phone on the other, she was able to rebook me on Delta and Alaska connecting in Atlanta. She also noted my reservation with INVOL (“involuntary”), which I’ll explain in the next step.
My new itinerary had me arriving only 30 minutes after my original schedule, and I spent the next few minutes writing a nice letter to 1K Voice.
Step 3: Check In
In rebooking situations like this, you need to check in again. Even on my rebooked Houston-Seattle leg that I handled over the phone, I would need to check in again at the airport despite being rebooked on another United flight. So I headed over to one of Delta’s gates, which were conveniently located in the same terminal.
I had the foresight to ask that the gate agent to add my Alaska Mileage Plan number to both flights as she checked me in. After all, these new flights can’t be credited to United, but they can be credited to one of the many other loyalty programs I participate in.
When United marked my reservation change as involuntary, that made it much easier for me to request original routing credit on the flight I would have taken with them. (I would have done the same had I been rebooked on that Chicago flight, which was still with United but earned fewer miles.) The end result is I will likely get to earn miles twice for the same trip. There’s a helpful Wiki post on FlyerTalk that explains more about requesting original routing credit on United Airlines.
Step 4: Optimize the New Itinerary
I had connection of only one hour in Atlanta, which made me uncomfortable at such a large airport. There was actually one flight before mine, so I asked for and received a seat on the earlier option when I checked in. There were no Economy Comfort seats, but I did get an empty middle next to me.
As for my Alaska Airlines flight, I was able to call Alaska and get them to add me to the upgrade list. No seats were available, and I ended up being #29 on the list, but at least I checked. I was originally skeptical of whether this would work because it was ticketed as a Delta codeshare, but somehow Alaska’s agents have always been able to fulfill any request I give them. I also got a better seat than what the Delta agent gave me. It was the very back row, but with another empty middle next to me.
With my new flight on Delta, I was able to use my American Express Business Platinum Card to get access to their SkyClub in Philadelphia, which is far better than either United or US Airways’ lounges. Even though Delta, like United, has downgraded their spirits in most lounges, I still found self-serve name-brand liquor here. There was also a business center, free copies of The Economist, and snacks that looked like real food. It was one of the nicest domestic lounges I’ve visited.
In the air I got to enjoy Woodford Reserve and free pretzels. I asked and they gave me some cookies, too. The flight attendants were very professional. There was in-flight WiFi had I wished to use it (though my Philadelphia-Houston flight had also been scheduled to offer WiFi). Alaska Airlines gave me a drink for free since I’m an MVP Gold member, and I got to try their new line of spirits by local Seattle company Sun Liquor.
And I got to experience two firsts: flying on an MD-88 and visiting Atlanta! I’ve avoided flying Delta for over four-and-a-half years after a bad experience with a gate agent. The “Mad Dog” was actually kind of fun and reminded me of Embraer’s 190 jets. I could tell it had been thoroughly refurbished and thought it was reasonably comfortable.
Delaying my flight turned out to be a great way for United to show me how much better their competition is, at least in some respects. There are still several reasons why I plan to keep it as my primary carrier, and I have no reason to hold a grudge against them for the delay.
What worked for me in this situation was keeping my options open and having resources available to make the most use of my new itinerary. I received twice as many miles and got home around the same time. The only real downside was the loss of my first class upgrade, but the quality of service in economy class on both flights was in many ways better than what I have to deal with on United. I stayed positive and came away from the experience no worse off.
I wrote about a similar situation last year when my flight home from Las Vegas was cancelled. In that case, there were no alternative options even on other carriers. We were forced to stay an extra night, but I still skipped the line to rebook and was able to get all my expenses reimbursed later. Never think you have to follow the herd.