Travel agents are on the passenger’s side. Airlines are out for themselves.


Airlines and travel agents have a love-hate relationship. The carriers want the business, but they hate any added costs, whether it’s commission or booking computer fees. Plus, there’s also the simple fact that agents, whether online or brick-and-mortar, help travelers shop for the best price, which forces airlines to stay competitive.

However, when there are delays and cancellations, the airline/travel agent relationship gets more complicated. Yes, travel agents routinely help clients find alternate flights, which saves the airlines time. When travelers are unhappy with the automatic rebooking options or when the automatic programs can’t find options, humans can be a lot more creative than machines. That’s mostly a good thing for airlines — except when it costs them money.

My client this week had business class United flights from Boston via Newark to Delhi. She had almost two hours in Newark, which would normally have been fine. But, on a cloudy day in Boston, the flight was announced as having a 50-minute delay. This still would have been fine, although I advised her to ask at the gate or in the lounge if there might be further delays, because there were other connecting options on other airlines.

She was told they should make it and boarded her flight from Boston, where alas, creeping delays meant the push back from the gate was delayed another 20 minutes; then it was 20 minutes until takeoff.  At this point the connection was getting tight. I called United. They were noncommittal, saying she might yet make it and to check after landing. As it was the end of the work day, I booked a flight on Swiss, a United Star Alliance Partner. I decided to keep an eye on things from home. I also sent her a message with the new flight option and with the Premier desk phone number, as I would be driving.

It turned out the flight, already delayed, was held up again by air traffic in Newark. This makes strange sense. Airlines tend not to prioritize short flights and flights that are already delayed. So she missed the connection to Delhi. United’s rebooking program changed her flight to the next day. This meant a 24-hour late arrival in Delhi.

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She told them I had rebooked her, so a gate agent sent her to Swiss. Then the fun really began. She called United’s Premier reservations line on the way and the reservations person told her the travel agent should not have changed the ticket. First, we didn’t know she would miss the United flight to Delhi. Second, while I could have redone the ticket if there had been another United option, there was no other United option. Airline rules, even with delays, don’t allow agents to exchange tickets on one airline for another — even when they are partners — except for rare cases (as in when the other airline can be booked with a flight number of the original carrier).

The Swiss agent told her, correctly, that United needed to send Swiss the e-ticket. At that point, she called me for help. So, I called our special help desk. The first United agent told me flat out, “We’re having weather issues and we don’t have to put anyone on a different carrier when it’s weather.” Of course, that’s a gray area, where airlines often help each other out with weather delays.

I told the first agent thanks and hung up. Tried again. The second agent told me they could do it, but not by phone; she had to go back to the United counter. Now, with the Swiss flight leaving in less than an hour, there wasn’t time.

I tried again. The third agent said she was going to try to get through to another desk, but put me on hold and didn’t come back. Since I was on a land line, I then used my cell phone and tried again. This time, I reached “Sam,” who told me to take a deep breath and he’d look at it. In about five minutes he told me, “It’s fixed. Swiss has the ticket. Have a nice evening.” (During this time agent three had somehow disconnected me.)

So, she made the flight, and her connection, and ended up in Delhi only 3 hours later, instead of 24 hours late.

But, what was the disadvantage to United here? Simply, money. Because UA had eventually turned the ticket over to Swiss, they had to pay Swiss for transporting their passenger. Airlines really hate to do that unless necessary. It’s one thing when they have no alternatives and all their flights are booked, but in this case, while the passenger would have lost one day of a four-day trip, the airline would have lost nothing, because there were seats on the next day’s flight. (And, because weather — low clouds — was part of the delay reason, United might not even have given her a hotel room.)

Good will is worth something, but airlines really do prefer to keep passengers on their own flights when they can. So a travel agent who knows the rules for advocating for the passenger might be good for the traveler, but not for the airline’s bottom line. Had this client booked direct, United would have informed the unfortunate passenger there were no other options.

Follow the money.