Rebooking Award Tickets During Irregular Operations

I seem to have jinxed myself, because in the past six weeks I’ve collectively had over 30 hours in flight delays, including a 14 hour delay between Seoul and Abu Dhabi yesterday. I thought it would make sense to provide some general tips on dealing with rebookings during operational issues, especially as it pertains to award tickets (after all, many of us primarily fly on award tickets).

Whether due to a strike, maintenance, political unrest, or weather, delayed flights can screw up a perfectly good itinerary regardless of whether it’s an award ticket or revenue booking. The complication with award tickets is that they are often booked by one airline for travel on partners. US Airways, I’m looking at you. 😉

If it’s not the airline that issued your award ticket causing a flight delay, they are much less inclined to assist over the phone. Speaking from experience, operating airlines don’t want to make any modifications to an itinerary over the phone if they didn’t issue the ticket, as they don’t “own” the ticket. This is especially frustrating if you’re trying to be proactive and handle a flight delay before heading to the airport.

Back in July, I wrote about how long to leave for connections on award tickets, which is a great way to protect yourself from minor delays that are just part of day-to-day operations in the airline industry. Then again, a long connection probably wouldn’t have saved a connection for my Etihad flight which was delayed by 14 hours.

Etihad flight delay notification

As a rule of thumb, there are three general ways to handle rebookings: 

  • Call the airline who issued your award ticket
  • Call the airline operating your flight
  • Work with an agent at the airport

Call the airline who issued your award ticket

This makes sense under a few different circumstances. First off, you want to be sure that the reservations office is open. It’s mind boggling to me that airlines like British Airways still don’t operate a 24/7 call “centre” for award tickets, even though they are just forwarding off US-originating calls to the UK.

Whenever I call an airline that issued the award ticket, I’ll always have back up flights ready to present that are available with award space. Close to departure, especially within the timeframe of a delay being posted, there’s usually several alternate options available unless there’s a major event, like the recent Air France strikes which even impacted Lufthansa award availability from Paris.

Without presenting options for a reservations agent to book, they can’t really help if the delay wasn’t caused by their own airline. Their hands are tied, even though they likely want to help.

If the delay or cancellation isn’t viewable by the issuing airline, they likely can’t waive any change fees either. This is especially important to keep in mind with airlines like Delta or US Airways, which restrict changes close to departure or once travel has commenced.

Call the airline operating your flight

This makes sense in situations where there’s no alternate award space, or you can’t get ahold of the airline who booked your award ticket.

While you’re going to get pushback 95% of the time with the reason they can’t make any modifications to the ticket, the operating airline can often “sell in” flight segments without re-issuing the ticket. Then they can call the airline who booked the ticket to get it re-issued, or an agent can handle this at the airport.

For example, you’re going to have better luck calling Lufthansa on a United MileagePlus award when you’re within a few hours of departure than United itself. Agents are more willing to help in situations where there’s time pressure, especially if it’s their own airline causing the delay.

I find this technique to work best when the delay is caused exclusively by the airline, like a mechanical delay or strike. Weather is a great scapegoat for airlines.

Work with an agent at the airport

Agents at the airport are afforded much more leeway when it comes to rebooking. While there are general policies in place to first rebook on their own flights and then on partner flights, they can even rebook you on unaffiliated carriers. I’ve even heard of British Airways rebooking first class award passengers on Emirates. 😉

Basically, what’s not possible over the phone might be possible at the airport. Customer service agents at the airport are the last resort for a customer suffering from irregular operations, so they’ll usually do what it takes to get you on your way.

If an agent is struggling to find alternate options, it helps to be prepared with flights that have availability. You can easily find flights still selling seats by using ExpertFlyer. Worst case, just try using an online travel agency like Expedia to find flights for sale that you can feed an agent.

Sometimes airport agents can’t see all the inventory that might be for sale on a flight because they are limited to what other airlines will display to them. This means they’ll have to give a call over to the new operating airline to verify seats are actually available. This is even common for airlines that have “close” relationships.

Don’t accept a downgrade

Often you’ll find that an agent will want to book you in lower class of service than you were ticketed. If there are seats for sale in the cabin your ticket was issued in, you are entitled to those seats. You paid for a certain class of ticket, but the fare component is based on miles, not money. Don’t feel pressured into taking an alternative that isn’t going to work for you.

On the flip side, I’ve heard many stories of passengers on economy award tickets being rebooked into premium economy or business class because there were no flight options available in economy. This is especially true during peak travel seasons when economy is full, but premium cabins still have availability.

Getting rebooked into international first class when you aren’t on a first class ticket is definitely a stretch, and not something I would propose to an agent. Airlines want to “protect the integrity” of their first class cabins, so they’re usually off limits, even in irregular operations.

American Airlines departures board during a storm at Chicago O’Hare

Bottom line

While much of this post applies to international award tickets, the good thing is that longhaul flights tend to operate with more consistency and punctuality than short haul flights… unless it’s Air India delaying a flight for a party.

I think I jinxed myself by writing about my first long delay in a while, because I mentioned how traveling longhaul is so much easier than short-haul. I guess that’s only true sometimes.

Hopefully this post sets some basic expectations for what’s realistic when it comes to rebooking your award tickets. I always hate to hear about awesome award itineraries that get ruined by irregular operations. Given how full flights are nowadays, it can be tougher than ever to get rebooked on an acceptable routing during irregular operations.

What has been your experience dealing with irregular operations while on an award ticket?

Filed Under: Advice, Awards
  1. On the bright side, I still remember how BA rebooked you on Emirates First class LHR-DXB since your incoming SEA-LHR BA flight was delayed. Now that’s awesome proactive service! 🙂

  2. Hi Ben

    I guess this flight was between Asia and Middle East but suppose it was to/from Europe. Wouldn’t airlines be responsible for taking care of customers regardless of the booking class according to EU261/2004? They often book you on a different airlines even if it is issued by different airlines when the flight gets cancelled if it is revenue ticket. Why is it different on award tickets? For example, my flight on LH was cancelled (cheapest economy ticket), then they booked me on BA but full economy class, so the booking class has changed. If the worry is the booking class, they could have done the same on award tickets…Is it because the reimbursement rate is different when changing an award ticket to a revenue ticket? In either case, I still feel like we are entitled to some sort of care if the reason for delay/cancellation is under their control even when the ticket was on award…

  3. Great blog entry, Ben. I had Twittered you about my experience with UA on my trip to Germany and Czech on LH FC. What you stated very much matches my experience. I ended up taking UA global first across the pond, and even though I was at first upset, I knew the agents were trying to help me out as there was nothing they could do. Couple comments;

    1. Those of use who schedule crazy award tickets out of regional airport simply have more challenges. You may want to mention in the future that if you are a regional airport flyer, it may be helpful if you can more easily begin/end your trips at a big airport if reasonable. Further, for a guy like me who lives in Sioux Falls, SD where the closest big airport is MSP 4 hours a way, you end up being more willing to tolerate tight connections, not because it is smart, but more out of necessity of the convenience of avoiding a long drive.

    2. I would add that you should consider paying to save time to get an airport rep. The entry fee for a club agent during irregular operations may be the best money you spend on a trip, as you will have your issues more quickly rectified. Last night, I ended my big LH first class trip ticket in Chicago and then was going to connect to another ticket to get back to Sioux Falls. Well, United cancelled my flight. (How folks regularly fly United and deal with Chicago are things I have a hard time grasping as a Delta guy……) my 8:30 PM flight was then was rebooked to 5:30 PM today! I entered United Club, with my TK travel hacked gold status, and quickly had it worked out to fly through MSP and connect to Delta to get home. As you stated, tell them what you want!

  4. Lucky, I want your opinion on this scenario:

    My flight on Air China got delayed and caused me to miss my next Air Canada flight. Air China says they are not at fault and I should talk to Air Canada. Air Canada says it is Air China’s fault.

    They push me back and forth for 8 hours at the airport. In the end, it leaves me without a ticket home. Stranded at the airport with no visa.

    Who is at fault here?

  5. A few years ago on the day UA and CO merged systems my award flight ORD-LHR was delayed 6 hours due to the computer system going haywire, which caused me to miss my paid BA flight to FCO. Even though I had bought the ticket to FCO from BA, UA put me on an AZ flight at their own expense.

    And FWIW, since I had checked in online for the BA flight, BA flat out refused to refund the round-trip ticket. The agent told me that a checked in passenger is considered en route and therefore the ticket is non-refundable. It took about 3 hours to squeeze $60 out of them.

  6. “Getting rebooked into international first class when you aren’t on a first class ticket is definitely a stretch, and not something I would propose to an agent. Airlines want to “protect the integrity” of their first class cabins, so they’re usually off limits, even in irregular operations.”

    A while back, I was flying home from Switzerland on Lufthansa. For some reason, they couldn’t issue my boarding pass in ZRH, and told me that it would have to be done in FRA. When I arrived in FRA, the agents seemed to be having difficulty with my boarding pass as well. They were speaking in German, but at one point, I did hear one of them say “voluntary downgrade.” Since I was booked in economy, I didn’t think that I could be downgraded any further. I didn’t even look at my boarding pass when they handed it to me, and headed down the bridge. When I went to turn right towards economy, the flight attendant say “Oh no sir, First Class is that way” and indicated that I should turn right. I’m glad that they didn’t protect the integrity of First on that flight!

  7. @ Cee,

    Was it the same ticket or two separate tickets. If the same ticket, Air China has to figure it out. If two separate tickets, you are on your own. I don’t think it is ever Air Canada’s fault in this case although they could offer to help if they are nice.

  8. Ben, how much of this still applies if it isn’t a flight delay? Say you miss a connection due to taking too long in customs.

  9. @ Lucky or THEsocalledfan, to quote what THEsocalledfan said ” I entered United Club, with my TK travel hacked gold status”…what does “TK” mean? And which credit card that I can use to enter United club?

  10. @Jessica: I believe it refers to Turkish Airlines (IATA Code: TK) Elite Card which is equivalent to Star Alliance Gold status.

  11. @ jay — It shouldn’t be. If there’s a major delay they should always be willing to rebook you on another airline with a more convenient schedule, assuming the delay was within their control. The major difference with the EU is that you’re entitled to monetary compensation.

  12. @ Cee — That’s the issue, neither airline is *totally* responsible, or at least not conclusively responsible enough to try and convince them they are. Did you try looking for other award options and then calling Aeroplan to rebook?

  13. @ Jason — You’d still be entitled to be rebooked, so shouldn’t change things too much. Though in general if you’re held up at customs you’d want to rebook at the airport and not by phone.

  14. Lucky, I had a similar experience to Cee, but with a quicker outcome. I was traveling on a US Airways award ticket with a domestic Air China segment connecting to an international Air China segment in Beijing (when US Airways was still part of Star Alliance). I thought two hours connecting time in Beijing would be sufficient. Then I learned Air China requires passengers to check in for the domestic flight, reclaim luggage in Beijing, then check in and re-check luggage for the international segment (SURPRISE!!). When my domestic segment was delayed an hour by ATC issues in Beijing, I missed my international segment. The first Air China airport rep told me she couldn’t do anything, and that I needed to get US Airways to address the problem. Fortunately, I was able to get a supervisor to help – he sent me to the airport duty manager desk, who re-booked me the next day, and put me up in a hotel. (The final surprise was that the hotel told me that Air China policy for single delayed travelers is to put two unrelated passengers in the same hotel room. Fortunately I was traveling in J, which “earned” me the perk of a hotel room to myself!!)

    Bottom line – know who is responsible for addressing operational delay issues before you fly; that will give you the confidence to resolve problems along the way.

  15. Lucky, what are our rights in irrops?

    1. Can we refused a re-booking, if it is a downgrade? [i.e. booked J award, rebooked into revenue Y seats?]

    2. If we refused a re-booking due to a downgrade, can the airline unilaterally cancel the ticket?

    3. What sort of compensation are we entitled, if we:

    a. Accept a lower class re-booking? (none? if we accepted the downgrade re-booking without agreeing on compensation at the time of re-ticketing? – assuming this downgraded flight will take off without delay)

    b. Accept a same class re-booking, but the next flight is still many hours away (I know EU261, but outside this scope, are we due for any compensation for the delay? – i presume so?)

    c. If we reject the re-booking? (as it is a downgrade. they refuse to do anything else to put us on another J class flight – I believe many agents will think they can only rebook you into award seats and it can be hard to find award seats in the last minute. And if no award seats open up, I can imagine the incompetent agent will just leave us in limbo. what are our rights if they insist its coach or nothing? )

    4. Re-booking into revenue class, outside the operating airline [and maybe outside the issuing airline as well]
    a. Can the airline refuse to do so? (like in your case with EY delay, rebooking into EK F which was rejected.)
    b. If the airline refused to do so, do we have grounds for more compensation, or it is up to the airline to determine what they want to rebook, and also the compensation they are willing to give for these delays?

    5.How do we go about getting the airline that issued the award tickets to re-issue a new one, if the operating airline agent is willing to re-book in revenue class on another airline, but has no clue on how to proceed?
    (is it the operating airline agent has to book the revenue class ticket first, then the operating agent calls the airline that issued the tickets, to follow through with the re-issue?
    do you call the issuing airline yourself and concurrently get the operating agent to rebook into revenue class of another airline, and the operating agent has to leave notes on system, for the issuing airline to see and re-issue the award tickets? – concurrently as it saves time for the operating agent as he/she will be overwhelmed? – How do you handle the expensive roaming charges, if you are the one calling the issuing airline yourself?)

    Thanks for this post. At least, I understand we should be able to re-book into revenue class in event of irrops, but I am just not sure if the agent is competent enough to do so, and how we can help the agent to do so when it is definitely high pressure situation at the airport.

    6. Lastly, when are we entitled a hotel stay (how many hours of delay before we are entitled to a hotel)?
    I can imagine some airlines will try their best not to put us in hotels in event of delays.
    (or put delay of 1 hr, then another 1 hr, and extending it again, and again…. till they are ready, and avoid hotel cost)

  16. @RendyA
    @ Lucky

    Thank you! Hmmm interesting….how to “hack” TK membership to achieve Star Alliance Gold status? I know we can “hack” the Star Alliance gold with Aegean.
    Can you please explain or point me to the link on guide how to hack this on TK? Thanks!

  17. During the recent mess in Chicago airports due to arson (Sept. 26), I learned some of these lessons the hard way as we ended up having to postpone our trip until next year due to a canceled initial leg to ORD. The two of us were booked IAH-ORD-NRT as following:

    Person 1: IAH-ORD on UA (revenue via UA); ORD-NRT on NH (pre-devaluation award via UA)
    Person 2: IAH-ORD on UA (revenue via UA); ORD-NRT on NH (award via Avianca Lifemiles)

    So not only were the segments on separate tickets but, the biggest problem we ran into was ORD-NRT not being booked via the same award program. In a perfect world, UA/AV would’ve sorted it out with NH and put us on the same flight the next day (there were revenue seats but no award seats) or would’ve put us on IAH-NRT period. However, given the giant mess and constant disconnections (1+ hour wait for an agent -> explain situation -> disconnection while on hold -> redial -> 1+ hours wait ->…) wasn’t able to achieve that result (NH itself, which didn’t have horrible hold times, wouldn’t touch our tickets).

    So IRROPs are a pain when there are multiple people traveling and become an even bigger headache when you are not booked through same airline/award program *sigh*

    P.S. At least, Lifemiles is great because it allows award cancelations even AFTER a flight! That is especially useful because they constantly do maintenance on Lifemiles system which means I’ve had to call on three separate days to cancel tickets (hint: call during the day as evenings/night is when LM is usually not working).

    P.P.S. @ Lucky — I remember your mentioning not getting taxes & fees refunded by Avianca. Got our refunded quickly for these tickets and another one awhile back.

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