How Airline Auto-Rebooking During Major Weather Events Makes Travel Worse Not Better

More flights have been cancelled this year than at any time since DOT cancellation statistics began 25 years ago.

Many travelers aren’t aware that they can get a full refund when they cancel, one of the more common questions I get is “if the trip I’m getting rebooked on doesn’t work for me, am I just flushing this ticket down the toilet?” No, you’re not, if your flight doesn’t operate you can get all of your money back. Airlines aren’t always clear on this point.

But rebooking options don’t always work for passengers. Planes run much closer to capacity these days, which means there isn’t a lot of slack in the system to re-accommodate folks whose flights have been cnacelled.

It’s tough to get through to airlines to sort things out. You’d expect websites to be better at handling rebooking than they are, occasionally this is possible but most websites do not handle this well at all. I’ve been unable to help people rebook cancelled flights online this week with American, Delta, United, and US Airways.

With everyone being cancelled at the same time, getting through on the phone is tough. Even elite lines can be difficult, this winter I’ve had 4 hour wait times to get through to American’s Executive Platinum line. Their system has been so overloaded that it couldn’t even validate my status to bump me up in the queue, though it’s not clear that the system was even able to manage the queue properly if it could.

Airline callback services are helpful, third party systems that will call you when it’s your turn are too. It doesn’t help other travelers but I’ll often try to get into the queue even when I’m not 100% sure that I need to be, the wait times are so long that I want to have access to someone in case I need it. (Go ahead and criticize me for this.)

But a point I haven’t seen made elsewhere is that airline auto-rebooking systems often make the problem worse, not better.

  • People often don’t know they’ve been rebooked
  • Auto-rebooking isn’t usually very ‘smart’, putting people on flights that depart even later than their return flight is supposed to bring them home (in the case of a short 1-3 day trip).
  • More generally, rebooking during major weather events and with capacity constrained often creates un-useful itineraries. That ties up inventory. Putting people on flights they cannot or will not take means that inventory is held, eventually to be cancelled (by phone). And as a result, others are not able to grab that inventory, until it’s freed up.

Auto-rebooking, when done poorly, makes it harder for everyone to get their trips sorted and get where they’re going.

It also leads to constant fluctuations in flight availability. People get rebooked, space disappears. The itineraries don’t work for them, they finally get through on the phone and change or cancel, seats re-appear. And with eveyrone looking to book something else, it then disappears just as quickly as someone else grabs it.

With long hold times, this can be even more frustrating — if you’re checking availability proactively, you see seats, but by the time you can get through to an agent (whether on the phone, or even in line at the club at the airport) those seats may be gone.

Auto-rebooking can be a great tool during modest events, isolated weather incidents or individual flights going mechanical. But during systemwide events with limited inventory available for rebooking, my own sense is that these systems make things worse rather than better.

Do you agree?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I was flying ATL-LGA on American with my wife and 3 young children.
    Our flight was cancelled and the rebooking computer split us all up onto 5 separate reservations, divided over 2 flights. It was pure luck my wife was on 1 flight and I on the second. The rebooking computer doesn’t take into account passenger ages and it is very possible it will have minors rebooked to travel separate from their parents they were originally booked together with.

  2. Agree! Over the new year, I was trapped at LGA because my Nashville connection was cancelled. (LGA to ATL to BNA, obviously Delta) I was auto rebooked aday later when what I really wanted was to keep the ATL portion then just drive to Nashville so I could make it home for work the next day. It took 2 supervisors to get back on my original flight – the one I paid for and didn’t asked to be removed from. Furthermore, the delay caused me to miss my next Delta trip (out of Nashville) because even after them getting me back on my original ATL flight, it was cancelled and I got auto-rebooked again a day later. Because of cancellations Delta made (reason aside) I was unable to catch my flight to CLT from BNA. All Delta customer service outlets refused to refund the missed trip, even @deltaassist (who took 12 hrs to respond). I finally had to do an online complaint to get a refund. I even have Delta status!

    I always SW the best at handling weather. I know that might get a few eye rolls from folks on here, but twice they have gone out if their way to bend the rules and do what was best for me.

  3. I’ve been trying for three days to cancel a one-way flight on Delta for today because we drove out of NYC before the storm instead of flying today. I haven’t been able to get through on the phone and the website is not able to handle the request to cancel and give a trip credit. I’m not sure what to do about this.

  4. @CHA-same thing happened to me with Delta last month. I finally sent an email to customer service before the departure date and time of my re-booked flight, telling them I was not taking that flight because it was not convenient and asking for a full refund. I received a full refund about 10 days later-no problem.

  5. I’m yet to see auto rebooking work at all helpfully! I had a domestic connecting flight that was vcancelled – the computer went and put me on a later flight that landed AFTER my long haul connection!! I wish they had better online systems to allow savvy travellers to make simple online rebookings themselves.

  6. How many days after a “Major Weather Event” are airlines allowed to claim that the weather is causing operational problems? Had a flight cancelled and I was rebooked exactly as described here (AA). The new flight did not work for me so I had to cancel the outbound and return flight. The flight was cancelled for “weather reasons”, but the major weather event ended a week before my flight (to top it off, they waited until 90 minutes before the flight to cancel it). If a major weather event happens, are the airlines just allowed to claim a weather problem perpetually to avoid compensation/accountability? And if the weather truly was continuing to cause a problem, wouldn’t they know this more than 90 minutes out?

  7. My IAH – CLT on US Airways got cancelled last night after looking for a while like it might be able to fly out. US Air cancelled all in-bound flights to Charlotte at around 4PM. They did not auto-rebook me on anything and the Chairman’s line wasn’t even accepting calls.

    I was able to get rebooked HOU – ATL (overnight) – CLT however when online on the HOU – ATL flight I realized Delta had a “lone survivor” ATL – CLT flighit going out last night at the gate directly across from our HOU arrival. What luck! When we landed I had a Delta rep put me on stand-by for this flight and it cleared and I made it home to CLT late last night – as of one of 2 commercials flights that landed during the period of 9PM – 11PM. So I got lucky.

    US Air did not auto rebook. I was annoyed I couldn’t get through to them to at least get on standby for other flights.

  8. @Mike I cannot speak to the specific circumstance of course, I don’t have enough information, but airlines are pretty aggressive in general in claiming weather.

  9. Oh, and what is worse – is that I was looking for new flights IAH – CLT. The 2/14 5:50AM IAH – CLT was showing as bookable on the US Airways website. However, when you check the status of that flight on 2/13 it says “cancelled”. So they were literally selling (and probably having other people rebook onto” seats on a flight that was already determined to be cancelled!

  10. Gary is wrong on this. Auto-rebooking makes things MUCH better, not worse.

    Without auto-rebooking, you are almost guaranteeing that EVERY SINGLE PERSON has to call in or see an agent. I recall hearing something like ~2500 flights were scrapped due to weather this week. That’s maybe ~250,000 people, +/- 20%. You think hold times are bad now, wait until that queue is orders of magnitude higher because everyone has to call now, if you went to non-auto-rebooking.

    Given that some people will scrap the trip, some people will be happy with the new itinerary [or not know better to call], or can find a simple alternative on the website, that’s all load that computers can handle without people.

    Sure, many people will be disrupted and have to call. Some auto-rebooks will not be useful. The technology could max out or fail. Those people will have to call, and yes it will be hit or miss. But I don’t see how non-auto-rebooks will be any better.

    – ALL of those same people will still call and still be on hold – wait times will not be shorter.
    – EVERYONE disrupted wants a rebook (or in the rare event, a cancel/refund, and many will be unhappy with the easiest to find alternative and thus will iterate with the agent, wasting time and increasing average wait times.
    – YOU WILL NOT GET EARLIER ALTERNATE SEATS “SAVED” FOR ELITES – it’s wishful thinking to think that in a non-auto-rebook situation the airline will save the earliest rebook seats for elites, that’s not a good business or operational decision. It’s in fact a good way to fly empty seats in the recovery and lose money.
    – CONSTANT FLUX is not only attributable to people changing their itineraries, it also is due to rolling waves of cancellations. You might get rebooked on a flight tomorrow due to a cancellation today. And that might have worked. But tomorrow’s flight might get cancelled too. And that 2nd rebook might not work, and you’ll call to cancel or talk to someone.

    It’s a complex optimization and computers will get it right for many cases, if not all, but given they can’t read your mind that’s not a total surprise. It’s not easy when it’s a huge number of people — and it gets worse when bad weather has caused 3 or 4 rounds of mass cancellations just 6 weeks into the year.

    But to think that not rebooking automatically, not using the technology available to us and forcing everyone to call the airline, further straining the scarcest resource – airline folks you can talk to to get things straightened out – would make things MUCH, MUCH worse.

    Personally, I think the smartest thing the airlines have done is the travel waiver 1-2 days in advance: they get people to call in before the mass wave of cancellations and followup calls, they get their passengers to their destinations before/after the weather event and reduce the disruption and workload during the event (shorter wait times), they get people onto the flights they are ok with (no inventory flux), and in the process they reduce their own costs and increase customer sat.

  11. Auto rebooking works well during isolated events where not everyone is getting rebooked. The concept is good but the execution is not. A better solution would be mirroring what can often be done at kiosks on the website.

  12. Agreed, had same thing, landed, in PHL on US, my next flight was canceled, and I was rebooked on DL next morning. How weird is that? how ever there was a last flight leaving for LAX, I fought to get on that one, and was allowed to board, but told I’ll be staying overnight there. I said, I’ll take my chances on West Coast. Got on a next flight on UA out of LAX and made it to my destination same night.

  13. We were trying to reschedule an international flight from the Caribbean to an area not affected by the storm. United’s toll free customer service automatically told us to call back later and hung up, leaving us with no booking options, since you cannot change an intl booking online. We couldnt use the “call me back” option since we only had Skype. So it’s not only the storm stayed passengers who are affected.

    We also tried using Twitter and Uniteds response was to contact the original booking source (which was United!)

    We finally resorted to answering every question asked by the automated system with “representative” and after 60 min on hold were successful in reaching a live person.

    Sorry, just needed to vent.

  14. Personally, I like the idea of auto-rebooking conceptually because I believe it is better to have something than nothing. If my choice is “a” seat or “no” seat, then I would rather have a seat! That said, of course the execution can use work. It’s such a complex scenario.

    On thing that I think could be useful on auto-rebooking would be a simple option to the consumer. “Choose 1 to accept the itinerary, choose 2 to cancel your itinerary and receive a refund, choose 3 to decline the itinerary suggested and speak to an agent”. Choices 2 and 3 free up the inventory, choice 1 satisfies people who are happy with the rebooking, choice 2 is great for people who want to drive or do whatever, and choice 3 is what people who don’t like the auto-rebooking will end up doing anyhow.

  15. Three very telling comments. The airlines have created these problems (admitted to return to profitability) and it is quite clear that auto-booking is not helping them fix the underlying problems.

    “Planes run much closer to capacity these days, which means there isn’t a lot of slack in the system to re-accommodate folks whose flights have been cnacelled.”

    “With everyone being cancelled at the same time, getting through on the phone is tough. Even elite lines can be difficult, this winter I’ve had 4 hour wait times to get through to American’s Executive Platinum line. ”

    “Auto-rebooking isn’t usually very ‘smart’, putting people on flights that depart even later than their return flight is supposed to bring them home (in the case of a short 1-3 day trip).”

  16. I had an interesting and frustrating experience attempting to rebook my mother yesterday.

    She was booked on this morning’s UA303, the 6:04am JFK-SFO flight. That cancelled in the early afternoon yesterday because the aircraft was scheduled to operate UA502, arriving at JFK at 1:00am in the heart of the storm.

    She was rebooked to Sunday morning, which would have made her trip out here pointless. I got on the premier desk hold line and started looking for options online. Unfortunately, the Change Flight link continually produced an error message without actually performing a search. However, if I searched for one way JFK-SFO flights, availability popped up on about a third of the searches. Meanwhile, I spoke with three phone reps who couldn’t find anything even as I simultaneously looked at options online and fed them flight numbers.

    Then I had the idea to book a refundable one way ticket and ask the next phone rep to merge the reservations. Didn’t think it would work, but figured it was worth a shot. Found a Y-fare LGA-ORD-SFO and booked it for $1700. The next rep told me, as expected, that they couldn’t merge the fares. She could refund the outbound fare of the original reservation ($350), keeping the original return. We weren’t interested in paying an additional ~$1350, so I cancelled the new one way and hung up.

    Fortunately, my mom has a large stash of miles (and this weekend visit is very important personally), so I started doing one way award searches. Pulled up a standard one way on UA642, booked it, got back on the line and got the refund for the original outbound, leaving the return in place. So in the end, she’ll get here on a non-stop flight about 5 hours later than anticipated and 25,000 miles poorer. A fine outcome given the circumstances.

    I’m obviously happy we figured it out, but I can’t help but think this worked out perfectly for United. Their inept system wouldn’t allow me to use the online change tool and their phone reps couldn’t see the availability I could see via the website. So instead of a free change via the travel waiver, we had to shell out miles. All-in-all, a frustrating experience.

  17. Auto-rebooking can be great, but they need to fix it with a few simple rules:

    1) Add age into the mix – the elderly and children need to be considered in a priority queue to assure they are safely with their travel companions, if they have them (obvious many older folks don’t need them, but if they do…)
    2) Make sure you are updating your departure times appropriately – there is a domino effect that leads to these 48 hour delays that can be remedied by taking into account the updated departure times of new flights.
    3) Do not hold certain classes of tickets
    4) Finally, have an end time that you won’t autorebook (48 hours past the date or past your return date!); instead, do a soft rebook – a hold, maybe – that indicates it should be transferred for free if possible.


  18. @JetAway, thanks for your response. I ended up using @DeltaAssist on Twitter and they ended up calling me on the phone to confirm the cancellation and refund rather quickly this morning. My last recourse was to use their customer service form online.

    What was disappointing about this whole episode was that this was the flight that I had snagged on Delta’s website error in late December. $15 one way in first class. Oh well; easy come easy go. And I hope that some people who were stranded were able to use our seats!

  19. Ah, how I miss the old United 500 mile upgrades and their rebooking engine. One short upgrade with a 500 miler and a cancellation and boom I was in first all the way. As I lived in Pittsburgh I effectively ended up with a double upgrade on a TALT all thanks to the rebooking engine. I was sad when they switched to CPUs.

  20. An Argentinian friend of mine was visiting me last year and nearly had an awesome auto-rebooking fail. We were in New York, and he was to fly to Paris for a few days before we would meet up in London. Delta cleverly rebooked him through Canada, which like the short-sighted US DOS requires a paid visa and insulting interview process for Argentines. Thankfully, I was watching his resevation closely and made a shocked (and super helpful and friendly) Delta phone agent reroute him.

  21. Im confused why you sat on hold with AA? Why not just call one of the foreign call centers. I called one of the caribbean numbers and waited maybe 2 seconds.

  22. I’ve had mostly good experiences over the last 18 months with auto-rebooking. Being hub based, the rebooks were typically to the next flight based on a cancellation. I can recall a single circumstance where I had a one-way ticket booked and the flight cancelled. No auto rebook, just an offer to rebook by calling or auto cancel if I didn’t respond.

    I think the airlines probably have a large percentage of cases sorted, but continue to work through all of the individual permutations that need specific logic to rebook.

    In the end, nothing beats the agent and a smart customer with desire that circumstances that can’t sit in a computer.

  23. Auto rebooking is the worst. I’m on an international flight tonight. Two days ago United cancelled my itinerary (and didn’t tell me, I just happened to see it when I logged in to check seat availability). I was autorebooked for the next day on the international flight, but they didn’t rebook the domestic connection. Turns out it was the Domestic leg that was cancelled, and the international flight was fine, so no idea how that made any sense.

    There were at least 6 options in my metro area (DC) that would get me to my connecting airport (Newark) in time to catch my original international flight, which meant there was absolutely no need to change my international leg to the next day.

    An hour and a half later (I called the UK line and didn’t have to wait more than 5 minutes for an agent, thank goodness and I was back on my original international flight with a new domestic leg. Of course, at that point we’d lost our good seats and were stuck with the crappy seats that were left for the 10 hour flight, but at least we won’t miss a day of vacation!

    Oh, and the reason for the cancellation? Weather. Even though conditions were perfect for flying.

  24. @SHi Guo – guess it depends on the circumstances, are you talking about weather or schedule change? and do you mean auto-rebooking or flexibility in letting you book whatever you prefer?

  25. @Gary-Thanks, yes I mean weather or schedule change and auto-rebooking. Guess when flights are cancelled due to weather or other reasons, I would prefer the airline system can auto rebook me on the next available flight or I can easily find a kiosk in the airport which I can make a schedule change. The thing I would try to avoid is long queue at customer service center or long waiting time phone service. Which airline can do this well based on experience?

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