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.

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