Don’t Make This One Simple Mistake on the Phone With an Airline

I gifted a domestic first class award. It was for a fairly well-known personality who offered to speak at an event for a non-profit I’m involved with. A non-stop first class flight was a requirement, and he was doing us a favor after all. Neither we nor I was going to come out of pocket for it (it was basically a transcon and pricey, no discounted first class available) so I offered to burn some miles.

I needed to book a one-way flight, since there was saver availability on US Airways for the outbound and saver availabiltiy on United for the return. So I used American miles for the US Airways flight. (US Airways does not offer one-ways at half the price of roundtrip.)

A couple of months pass, and I receive an e-mail e-ticket update from American. The US Airways non-stop flight was now an American connecting itinerary through Dallas. Hmm… that’s strange.

I look up the original flight and two things had happened:

  • There was a 10 minute schedule change
  • The flight number had changed.

Since ‘my flight’ was no longer available after this change, American’s systems rebooked the passenger in first class on their own flights.

That wasn’t going to be ok, since the agreement was that we provide a first class ticket. So I rang up American.

The first agent I spoke to was unhelpful and as unpleasant as can be. She wouldn’t let me finish the story. She was lecturing me.

  1. This was originally an American Airlines flight, not a US Airways flight
  2. American no longer operates the route.
  3. American and US Airways are still separate airlines, she can’t just change airlines for me and put the passenger on US Airways.
  4. But she would check if there’s availability on US Airways.

Now, I think I know the difference between an American flight and a US Airways one. It was a flight between a US Airways hub and a city that’s a hub for neither carrier. It was definitely a US Airways-operated flight.

And all that happened was a schedule change of a few minutes and a flight number change.

There’s no first class award space on the US Airways flight now. I already checked that. But I waited patiently because the agent wasn’t one that was going to appreciate any knowledge that contradicted her own, or that I had done my own research. I tried to stay sweet and pleasant while she lectured me about how I didn’t know what flight I had originally booked, and seemed to imply I was trying to put something over on her.

She came back and informed me that there was no award space on the flight I wanted, that the itinerary would either stay the way it is or I could cancel the ticket and have a refund of the miles.

I was frustrated and should have just hung up and called back. In fact that’s what I was going to do, but I let my frustration show. So I politely thanked her and told her I was going to call back and speak to someone else.

I know better than to do that. It challenges the agent, suggests they’re unhelpful (which they are) and unknowledgable (which they are).

She replied, “You’re welcome. I’m going to document your reservation so future agents know what I’ve already found out for you.”

Aargh. That’s the most dreaded thing, because future agents are rarely willing to override one of their colleagues that has written comments in a reservation.

  • They will tend to side with their colleague
  • They don’t want to get in trouble and do something that might be wrong
  • If another agent goes so far as to document something, they’ll assume that agent must be right. Why take a risk by overruling them?

So I called back. And spoke to a very helpful agent. I assumed that I was going to need a supervisor, but the frontline agent I spoke to insisted on hearing the story before escalating. She agreed with me that I should have the passenger booked on the non-stop flight, since that what was originally booked and all that had changed was a flight number.

She documented the reservation herself, although it took some time because the previous agent was still in the record writing up her nastygram. Then she queued it for a liason to look at and let me know to expect it to take three days.

Three days later I received an updated e-ticket email — with the non-stop flight I was looking for.

It all worked out and fairly straightforwardly too. But it could have been much worse. Once a record has been document, it’s often necessary to cancel and start over with a rebooking. That would have been a problem here because there wasn’t the award space I needed available. The only leg I had to stand on the get what I needed was the original reservation showing that I had had the non-stop booked to start with. So I didn’t want to cancel.

  1. Never be snarky
  2. Never try to educate an agent
  3. Never tell the agent they’re unhelpful
  4. Never tell the agent you’re going to find someone else to do what they’re unwilling to do.

Don’t challenge their authoritah — because an agent can document your record.

Just politely hang up, call back. That’s the best piece of advice in travel. Even when you’re tempted not to hang up and call back, hang up call back anyway.

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. A nice way to hang up and call back is while thanking the person for their assistance, accidentally disconnect the phone midstream of the “thank you for…..”. The agent will think the phone call was just dropped…

  2. Good advice, Gary; and I am glad things worked out.

    Please allow me to add that — in addition to call center representatives _ those four bulleted tips should also extend to gate agents, flight attendants, front desk agents at hotel properties, rental car employees, etc.

  3. it’s sad, but comical: that whole “document your reservation” thing.

    Conjures up memories of the schoolkid-era “it’ll go in your PERMANENT RECORD” threat.

    Good lesson – thanks for the warning.

  4. Regardless of what airline the flight was actually on, just because it was a US Airways hub to a non-hub doesn’t necessarily mean it was US Airways operated. They have started commingling their aircraft already, so AA flies formerly US routes and vice versa.

  5. The question Gary is why you didn’t hang up in the first 2 seconds when she introduced herself. Was there no clue of her unhelpfulness?

  6. I got a reservation documented even though there was no animosity.

    I wanted to change iad-fra on ua to iad-muc on lh f. Agent saw the space and tried to change it but couldnt get lh to confirm it. She tried really hard too, and in the end wasnt able to make the change. But for some reason put a note in my reservation.

    So then when I call back, every agent sees that and uses it as an excuse not to do any legwork. I finally got an agent who didnt notice it and got me on lh without any hassle.

  7. Echoing Gavin, Gary was this EXP desk? If so you can file a complaint about her, if you have her name. But, I find the easiest thing is take notes about agent names. If you find someone who is just a negative nelly, say you dialed in error, and hang up. Why bother with someone who hasn’t helped you in the past.

  8. I had the same issue where an agent refused to confirm an award itinerary because it was not the “most direct” routing (i.e. non-stop, even though there was no award space for the non-stop). She apparently documented to NOT allow this routing due to the most direct routing rule. It took about 6 hours of HUCA and multiple supervisors until someone who would finally just let the computer ticket it. Prior to that every agent just said this is not a valid itinerary and would not even try to ticket it. Once the supervisor hit the ticket button (or whatever they do) it successfully ticketed within an hour.

  9. @Aryan – American does have a rarely-enforced rule to use the most direct AVAILABLE itinerary. A non-stop flight with no award space is not available. Good for you on the persistence!

  10. Gary, I’m going to disagree with this. Agents know that their colleagues are not always well trained. I used to be afraid of documentation, but now I use it to my advantage.

    In a case like this where the agent is factually wrong (e.g., saying you were on AA when you were really on US), it’s a perfect thing to get documented. You can discredit them immediately with their factual errors.

    So when I get a “rogue” agent who is incorrect, I deliberately challenge them. Then I direct the next agent to the notes and mention the previous rogue agent who was wrong. If the next agent is any good, they’re more likely to side with you, and have pity for you, since you’ve already expended time on the issue.

    Obviously if you’re asking for a rule to be bent, and you’re denied, you don’t want to challenge the agent then. But when you know you’re right and/or the agent is being stupid, I say let them document their stupidity in the record.

  11. Same thing happened to me two weeks ago. First Class USAir flight from LAS booked via AA miles magically became a 45 min connect through PHL. Call to AA said original flight fully booked in F; rerouted through DFW, then unable to checkin at LAS because flights operated by USAir. 45 minutes later, finally got boarding pass. USAir /AA really need to get their act together!

  12. @ uncle jeff, not a bad idea for AA, but would not work with US “worthless agents who don’t know any rules” Airways.

  13. Had this happen recently with our 777 FC flight from DFW to FRA next July. Not that we necessarily wanted to go to FRA, and we certainly didn’t want to go in July. But after @6 months of searching daily, that was the only FC Saver TATL flight with 2 seats available all Summer long.

    Checking on it a few months after booking, I noticed something was wrong with the reservation. Investigation showed AA had changed the flight from a 777 to a 763 that didn’t have a FC. They kept us in the same seat numbers, and the reservation still said “FC”, but in reality we were in an angled flat 6 across very old J hard product 763. They did not return any miles either.

    I called the Gold desk, and the agent only offered to either cancel the reservation “with no fee” or else “try to get you some miles back”.

    Are you kidding me? I didn’t spend all that time searching for a 777 FC Saver award, only to get some miles back and be stuck overnight in ancient angled flat seats. And I have a better chance of filming BigFoot than finding another pair of TATL FC Saver award tix for next Summer. So no I’m not going to cancel either.

    I pointed out that the plane we had originally booked appeared to have been switched to the DFW-CDG route for next summer. I requested we be moved to that flight, which so far had no seats booked on it. She refused because “there is no Saver availability on that flight”.

    “Supervisor Please….”

    I politely explained to the sup that I had not ever wanted to go to FRA, I just wanted to get a pair of TATL FC Saver awards, and that this had been all AA would give us. And now that had been unfairly taken away without even any notice.

    I don’t know if being Lifetime Gold helped or not. But she did some quick checking, then rebooked us on the CDG flight for the same day.

    So there is the HUCA option, or the two magic words option: Supervisor Please… 🙂

  14. @Gary – Exactly – I was providing AA documented support for your position.

    That’s why I wrote: “Of course, the first agent was incorrect.”

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