When Airline E-Tickets Break: How to Avoid Being Denied Boarding

Dave H. passes along the story of a woman whose paid first class ticket was mistakenly voided as she sought to board a flight home from Punta Cana.

Karen Smith of Milford was on vacation with her family in the Dominican Republic.

On their way home April 12, she printed out her first-class boarding pass and had it scanned by both security and US Airways agents at the Punta Cana boarding gate.

Then something went wrong. She was pulled out of the line just as she and her family were about to get on the plane. They took her boarding pass. They said they needed to give her a “flight coupon” back at the counter. They made her stand at the counter so long that the flight took off with her husband and three children aboard and all their luggage. She had no possessions except her purse. They did not rebook her on another airline and said they had nothing available on US Airways except a flight that would get her home in two days. The counter closed. As night fell, they left her in the lobby. She had to go on her own to a hotel, then pay nearly $1,400 the next day to get home on Delta Air Lines.

What happened? What could she have done? And how you can avoid similar problems like this in your own travels?

Here’s what what know about what happened.

This woman had booked an Expedia ticket for first class travel outbound on Delta, returning on US Airways. On the outbound,

Delta had to make an adjustment to Smith’s ticket at the gate, but — and this is the part that is not supposed to be possible — somehow voided out the entire e-ticket including the US Airways return portion — even though the change did not show up in the US Airways reservations system and the passenger had no way of knowing about the problem.

We’re not told exactly what the change was. Whatever happened, the screwup occurred only on her ticket and not with other members of her family. My best guess is that they had to change flights somehow, and the Delta agent didn’t rebook her correctly.

Here’s the rub, though, and what seems the most strange to me. Apparently she “was able to print out her US Airways first class boarding pass, get it scanned, and nearly board the plane when US Airways agents, noticing for the first time the lack of a valid underlying ticket, pulled her from the line.”

This has happened with some regularity over at United, where I’m familiar with agents accidentally canceling future flight segments when making changes during irregular operations, or they’ll leave the old segments in the reservation and when the passenger doesn’t take them the onward segments automatically cancel out.

In this story the situation was made even more complicated by the two airlines involved.

My best guess is that it was a Delta ticket (although this is not necessary to the story), where the Delta agent did something which left the ticket out of sync with the reservation.

It’s strange though that US Airways let her check in without the ticket in sync but I suppose with their computer system I suppose it’s not all that surprising.

I’m not clear, then, how US Airways would have caught the problem once there was a boarding pass issued. And the problem itself should have been fairly obvious, and not that difficult to fix, although certainly time consuming.

I recently flew out of Siem Reap on Dragonair where I experienced something similar.

I was traveling on an American-issued award ticket, where the Dragonair agents couldn’t see the ticket attached to the reservation. I gave them the ticket number, and then they needed to call Phnom Penh to get help in re-associating the ticket with the reservation. In that case Dragonair hadn’t been able to issue a boarding pass until the ticket became associated.

I had a similar issue about six months ago on an Orbitz-issued ticket for travel on American and Alaska Airlines. American had re-issued the tickets, confirming upgrades, but left the ticket out of sync with Alaska. The only way we managed to fix this in time for travel was by American’s printing out a paper flight coupon and attaching it a boarding pass for the Alaska segment. And then I wound up misconnecting, getting the entire ticket re-issued, but I still had a paper coupon for the return segment on Alaska.

I turned up at the airport early, found I had two reservations on the same flight, and neither one synced to a ticket. But knowing the problem it was a 5 minute fix.

My general advice is to show up at the airport early if

  • You cannot check-in online.
  • And doubly so if you are traveling on more than one airline.
  • And if your earlier flights had suffered travel disruptions which caused you to be rebooked for travel which didn’t match the original ticket.

It’s not uncommon for instance if you have to grab a connecting flight for the agent doing the rebooking to associate the wrong flight coupons with the new flights.

All that said, though there seem to be some missing details in this story, I wouldn’t have anticipated this error (other than, perhaps, checking with US Airways that there was still a ticket associated after Delta had made a change). Once you have a boarding pass you are generally fine, no indication of a need to be at the airport early. And I believe that missing details prevent diagnosing this case further.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I am a travel agent, and I can tell you what happened here, and this is my pet peeve when people go travel agents aren’t necessary. Keep booking online with Expedia, you can see how much help they were to this woman.
    US Air is notorious for this, and they have untrained gate agents who messed up. Had the passenger had her ticket number, she could prove she should be on that flight. The minute this happened, had she used a REAL travel agent, she should have gotten on the phone to them immediately and we could see her live reservation in our system and figure it out and remediate it immediately. We have resources available to us, including CONTRACTS with the airlines which give us the ability to fix things in the GDS with waiver codes, etc.

    People, get real, this saving $5 by booking on line is biting you on the backside. I’m sorry this happened to this person, or anyone with a similar horror story, but for every one of those stories I have one to match it and how I and my colleagues fixed it and got the woman on the flight.

    ALso i don’t understand how the family stayed on the plane and insisted this sorted out and just left without her. SOmething makes no sense here.

  2. @Debra How about staying to the facts and stop moaning that you did not make a few bucks off the passenger as an agent ? Your REAL job is dying out due to technology. Move on.

  3. @Kim Stop being a beeeeeeeeeeooooooooc h
    Travel agents do have some value. Only not to you. “Technology” isn’t always the answer.

  4. I’ve used that same travel agent for >30 years. There have been a few airline screw ups, but the agent has ALWAYS been able to fix the problems, usually very quickly. Saving a few bucks? I save more than a few buck and a lot of heart-ache by using the agent!

  5. @Kim,second that.
    @Debra,you start off saying you “can explain what happened here”,but all we see is just some rants and frustration about your falling business.And ending with “something doesn’t make sense here”.
    Get real.. the market economics will determine who will flourish and who will perish.

  6. Every single one of these horror stories has on thing in common – whether it’s in the news, FT, or even Elliott. You see the horrific title, read the 2-sentence lead-in, and then you see “Priceline”, “Orbitz”, or “Expedia”. Yep, that’s your problem right there. My goodness, if you’re getting PAID F class, why are you doing it through an OTA???!!!

  7. I don’t understand how a travel agent could have corrected this problem “immediately” with just a ‘phone call, whereas neither airline could do so. Not saying this to be snide; I would like to be better informed about the value of a TA. Can a simple ‘phone call to a TA resolve everything faster and more easily than dealing with an airline rep? Agreed, Orbitz, Expedia, et. al. OTA are only good for the simplest of travel arrangements.

    Please explain, thanks.

  8. US Air. Ugh.

    So, for the immediate fix, why didn’t the US Air gate agent just sell that lady a first class, or any, ticket for that plane, and then straighten things out while she flew home? So that, best case scenario, her new charge would be zero’d out by the time she picked up her bags.

    Answer: Because s/he had the same great training that the agent at our US Air cattle-car boarding area obviously had been given when, last Sunday, she raised her right arm, facing the crowd, hollering through the mike, “Now, all you Washington passengers go to the right!” and then, windmilling up her left arm, “And all you Philadelphia passengers go to the left”.

    You could see the heads snapping back and forth. You could feel the buzz in the crowd.

    A few minutes later she came on the standard-issue overpowered US Air speakers and tried to correct herself.

    Later, walking onto the plane, chatting with the senior flight attendant: “…Oh, that’s why everyone on this flight is asking me if this is the plane going to Washington!”

    Gad, I hope American retrains all of the front door US Air staff they keep.

  9. I don’t understand this “in sync” notation you’re using.

    In every case, the passenger’s PNR in the appropriate GDS(s) was either updated incorrectly (segments cancelled) or was not updated at all, right?

  10. To those slamming the travel agent, I adore having an agent who knows me, and my favorites; where I like to sit, the perfect hotel room and so on. She might cost me a little but it saves me in many other ways. For example – she recently got me a terrific rate and upgrade in a luxury hotel in London and it was not available except to travel agents. I couldn’t have afforded it without her deal and I wouldn’t find these deals or this great service on Expedia or other travel sites. I feel safer with my travel arrangements and can relax a little bit.

  11. @Eddy you have a reservation and you have a ticket and each segment of a reservation has to be associated with the ticket component that supports payment for the flight. That’s the syncing issue.

  12. First, “Kim”, I have a thriving Corporate and Leisure business. My job is not dying, I earn COMMISSIONS that are over 6 figures a year from the airlines, and YES they pay commissions again to top agencies. You need to move on. I can explain what happened, but then you and “Average Traveler” would need some working knowledge of Sabre, and since you don’t it would be like talking to a wall. So to spare you the technology of the situation, US Air f*$ked up royally being untrained, as it was a Delta plated ticket (006) and US Air is (037) and the gate agent cancelled her reservation “accidently” before she used her boarding pass and the bar code wouldn’t scan it. It wasn’t “voided” as you can’t void a ticket after 24 hours. It had to be reissued again on Delta stock, which obviously the gate agent had no idea to do cause they teach them on GUI interfaces, not formats like real agents use.

    Thank you to those who appreciate the value of their agents. And to answer Justin, I take calls to my cell phone 24/7 especially for people in Asia Pacific, as my clientele base is a lot of Senior Partners of Major DC Law firms and they know they can call me anytime for anything as that is the service i provide them, which of course they pay for, as they do not want to be in Asia and have to call some call center of people when they need something and no one knows them when they call and they have to hold in queue. They call me and they get me right away.

    So, haters, that is how MANY travel agents work these days, providing a service that is worthy to those who know the value of it. Go book on Expedia and save $5 and get walked from your hotel room cause they gave your room away. That never happens to my clients, EVER.

  13. Kimmie A – to answer your question I have Sabre GDS which is a live reservation system. I also could see the history in the record and assess why the ticket had a problem, and revalidate it immediately. Takes one minute to do that, i don’t have to call the airlines. I just have to sign into my GDS and make it happen.

  14. Eddy,

    If any change is made to the reservation, by the passenger or by the airline thru irregular operations, then the “e-ticket” has to been changed to match the reservation. Things like changing your seats or getting upgraded (by status), generally do nothing to the e-ticket. Most people don’t change their flights because it is prohibited by the fare rules. Schedule changes made by the airlines, for example tickets purchased 10 months in advance of travel, the airlines’ computers fix those e-tickets almost automatically. But, if there are changes made to your reservation by you or if your flight gets cancelled, and the airline puts you on another flight THEN your e-ticket has to be changed to match your reservation. These kinds of mistakes usually happen during irregular operations. When there are dozens of flights cancelled, agents become so overwhelmed that it is a very easy mistake to make.

  15. Yeah, what I don’t understand is how she was able to get a boarding pass without the PNR and VCR being matched and attached. OLCI/kiosk check-in shouldn’t be possible if the ticket isn’t attached, and if an agent tries to check someone in and the ticket isn’t synced, the agent will definitely notice it and either fix and resync the ticket or print a paper flight coupon. Either US’s computer systems are far more screwed up than they should be or there’s a component to the story missing here.

    As for the value of travel agents–I’ve never had IRROPS that a call to the airline’s elite desk hasn’t solved. In fact, I’ve heard far too many stories that end the opposite way–an airline representative wants to fix a problem but can’t because it’s an agency-issued ticket. Now if a TA wants to book a fare I’ve found via ITA but can’t get the airline’s own site to accept AND will provide immediate, competent assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even at 2am all for only $5 per booking, then sure, I might be tempted to use one. But when they charge $20 per booking and then provide worse service than the airline’s own elite (or even non-elite) phone lines, which is the majority of TAs out there, IME, then it makes sense why TAs are in general going the way of the dodo.

  16. Debra, with all due respect, this type of issue could not just be revalidated, as the there would be no coupon available for revalidation. What happen here is the DL agent on the outbound did not perform an exchange properly, and turned the original 4 coupon ticket into a 2 coupon ticket. I’ve seen it happen countless times. The only way to correct this type of scenario is for DL to either issue a new eticket or issue a FIM for the US flights, once they checked the eticket history and verified and exchange was done improperly or the agent ‘stapled’ too many coupons to the segments.

    It has nothing to due with booking source.

  17. I beg to differ – she had a reservation and printed her boarding pass. Who knows why at the gate but somehow her reservation was cancelled or invalidated. I don’t know what you have seen, but I know how a GDS works. The pax would not be able to print a boarding pass and get thru security to the gate had she not had a valid reservation to begin with! Nobody exchanged anything, unless the gate agent really screwed up something and tried to do that. Booking in her PNR another reservation and validating that reservation to the ticket number in the record would have fixed it no doubt.

  18. and true, it has nothing to do with the booking source, BUT the booking source has access to the LIVE PNR and can see the history, see what happened and FIX it.

  19. For Delta tickets, when we lookup the reservation on af.com and/or saudiairlines.com, do we see a ticket or a reservation or both? And could these 2 websites have helped this woman?

  20. @debra

    I’m trying to separate your rhetoric from reality, so please help me out here:

    1. You say: “I am a travel agent, and I can tell you what happened here” but then you go on to say: “Who knows why at the gate but somehow her reservation was cancelled or invalidated.”

    Which is it? Can you tell me what happened here or do you have no clue why the gate screwed things up?

    2. “People, get real, this saving $5 by booking on line is biting you on the backside.” You also say: “I earn COMMISSIONS that are over 6 figures a year from the airlines, and YES they pay commissions again to top agencies.”

    What exactly are your fees? Are you only charging $5 to your customers? If you’re making 6 figures a year on commissions from the airlines, why bother with the $5 garbage fees at all?

    I do a lot of travel all over the world, and I don’t know a single time a travel agent is value added. If anything, they’re value subtracted. My biggest pet peeve was when I had an evening flight on a full Y ticket, and was running late for my ticked flight. It was after COB, and I called Delta to tell them I was running late and wanted the next flight. They had ONE seat, and wouldn’t give it to me because it was an agency ticket. Agency was closed, ’cause it was after 5, so I had to deal with it at the airport, FML. This was a $1600 ticket, and DL told me they didn’t care what I paid. I asked them if they cared if it was a full Y ticket.

    TBH, agencies just get in the way. And the inconsistencies in your posts aren’t helping you any.

  21. Dan, or is your name “Dick”? No one can be 100% certain what happened, but in my YEARS of experience with Sabre and Worldspan GDS, ticketing, and things that have happened at the gate (errors by gate agents that shouldn’t happen and are a million to one shot), I can pretty much surmise what happened, but without seeing the history log no one can be sure.

    My fees are negotiated based on the list of services I provide. I charge minimum $35 a ticket for corporate, but if i’m doing your vacation i don’t charge at all as I earn on the trips’ commission. My $5 statement is something agents say about people who call us and waste our time with asking for prices and then say “Its $5 less on Expedia I’ll book it there” after they’ve picked our brains for where to stay, etc., which after that happens once to an agent never happens again.

    As for the Travel Agent you used, it must have been one lazy assed lousy agency and you mean to say they didn’t have an after hours service? Also, you must have been very out of order to the gate agent, as the airlines can work on any ticket no matter where it was issued, you were probably rude and they didn’t want to help you. That said, if you were an experienced flier as you say, you’d have known to ask for the station manager, as if you didn’t know they have supreme power to put you on a flight, hold a flight until you get to the gate, put you in first class or throw your ass out.

    That said, that is why my clients have my cell phone so they can reach me 24/7. I’ve taken care of people at Narita at 2am – and i grew my business based on that level of service without any advertising, just word of mouth. I keep my client base at the level its at so I don’t take on too much and burn out. THAT is how todays’ success travel agents work. We do our clients vacations as well as their family and friends so we are not working blind with idiots who will price shop to save $5 online.

    You are one nasty person, and any travel woes you have you brought on yourself, as your posts are mean spirited and just STFU.

  22. M – on the website when you have a ticket you can see the ticket number if you don’t know it (it should be on your confirmation, but most people don’t bring them with when they travel). The Ticket number is the supreme piece of information to fixing anything – it shows the status of a ticket (Open, CKIN (checked in) Used, Refunded, Void, etc). It also gives the airlines access to the history of who made changes on the record, so where ever something went wrong they will see it and figure out exactly how to fix it. Just going on the website doesn’t help, the websites are never helpful and sometimes don’t even work.

  23. Wow, Debra; remind me never to do business with you. Your response to Dan was absolutely uncalled for. He challenged your assertions; you took it to a personal level. I understand you feel defensive about your dying industry, and I get that you believe you still provide value (and perhaps you do), but with that attitude, I certainly don’t feel any sympathy for poor travel agents who are losing their jobs and livelihoods.

    Also, M, since Debra didn’t answer your question (and perhaps she doesn’t know the answer, since she doesn’t seem to live and breathe the world of experienced *flyers* like we do), AFAIK, the Saudi website displays the details of the *ticket*, not the PNR, so yes, that should have helped the person identify the issue (if she had known about it, which she probably didn’t, of course). I’m less familiar with the AF website so can’t speak to that.

  24. Sorry, but Debra is correct. I’m an agent as well, and I understand what she is saying. And Dan was making it personal not only to her but all agents.

  25. I actually think that most agents aren’t going to be able to fix this one their own when
    * multiple airlines are involved
    * the airline whose stock the ticket is plated on takes over the itinerary and makes a change

    Maybe the agent can re-sync and/or re-issue the ticket buy
    * most agents nowadays don’t do air
    * those that do won’t know how to do this correctly
    * and would be risking a debit memo so would be highly reluctant to do so

    On the other hand an airport agent for the airline should have had little difficulty in fixing this, although there’s missing pieces to the story that none of us have that would actually have to be known to shed light on who could have or should have done what… in particular how the passenger was able to check in and get a boarding pass, and how it was then determined that they shouldn’t be able to fly while the rest of their family was. Too much missing information here to actually know.

    But in general seems to me that had they been at the airport earlier and learned of the problem earlier (again, no reason they should have been or would have in this case), then an airport agent for US Airways – at a minimum working with the ticket issuer Delta – could have sorted this, and probably more easily than an agent.

  26. If I didn’t already have an agent (who is great AND supports me 24×7 around the world), I would use Debra. When you are stuck, you need someone who will aggressively work through all the traps to fix the problem. Also, it is invaluable to have someone on the originating end who can see far more in the systems than I can and can figure out the best plan for my trip.

  27. Gary — the article doesn’t say what time the lady arrived at the airport but – presumably – she went to board with other first-class passengers and even that didn’t give enough time for gate agents to fix it. When you mentioned getting to the airport early, did you mean that we should proactively approach gates agents to verify everything is in order with our tickets?

    At any rate, can we all agree that both DL and US screwed up here? DL when they messed up the ticket and US when they left the poor woman stranded.

  28. @Debra – Wow so your immediate response to your inconsistencies being noted is to resort to name calling? How very not ‘mean spirited of you’.

    If you do in fact deal with major DC law firms I would have thought precision word choice would come more naturally to you but I see that is not the case. As someone who does have to deal with precise word choice as part of my profession your posts caused a great deal of confusion with the various implications and inconsistencies.

    If you cannot be certain don’t say ‘I know what happened’. The word ‘probably’ or phrase ‘most likely’ along with others exist for a reason.

    Referring to those who save ‘$5’ is disingenuous as the likelihood of finding a TA who would do this booking for $5 is remote. Even if they were clients of yours who you would have done this for for ‘free’ there is the incurred cost of previous charged services you provided unless you only charged them $5 or less for each of their previous travels.

    In any case I am interested to see what, if any, insults and name calling you direct my way

  29. US welcomes all you former AA customers – this is what you can expect going forward. I am just going to laugh in a couple of years when we see everyone who defected to AA will be begging for status matches on UA and DL.

    You think UA is poorly managed with poor IT, wait until you see the AA/US integration.

  30. My general advice, however, is to contact with Refund.me, a company which helps you to be refunded. Fight with airlines is not simple, but is not impossible!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *