The vanished reservation

By Philip Wagenaar

“You can leave earlier if you travel standby on Delta,” the reservation agent told my cousin, Marcus, when he called Northwest Airlines about his JFK-to-Seattle flight.

“Fantastic! What a terrific service,” he commented.

He wasn’t quite so happy a few days later when he checked his seat assignment for the return trip to JFK online and found that his booking had vanished into thin air.

When he called the airline for clarification, he was informed that the original booking from JFK had been canceled as a “no show” and, as a result, the return had been wiped out.

I had a similar experience a few days earlier, when I phoned to inquire what the charge would be to make a date change in our Seattle-Amsterdam-Istanbul round-trip frequent-flyer award tickets on Northwest.

While I was put on hold, I recalled my cousin Henri’s admonition to pull up your flight schedule on the airline’s website whenever making any changes. That way, you can monitor what the agent types in the computer and immediately see the modifications made to your itinerary. I quickly went to the appropriate screen.

For countless minutes I waited with my ear thrust against the telephone receiver and my eyes glued to the computer display. Damn it! A series of clicks and beeps alerted me that I bad been disconnected. Still watching my screen, I did a double-flip as I stared incredulously at my altered itinerary. The round trip to Istanbul had disappeared, and the Amsterdam-to-Seattle departure date had been changed. (Note that I had only inquired what it would cost to make the change.)

I immediately phoned Northwest back and confronted the representative with the involuntary alteration. Following 1½ hours of spirited discussion, which involved the assistance of a supervisor, Northwest grudgingly reinstated the original booking. However, I was now advised that I had to pay an additional computer-mandated fee. It took many more lengthy phone discussions to get the airline to waive the extra charge.

Need I tell you that a few weeks later, when Henri wanted to make a seat assignment on a recently booked Northwest international flight, he found only the domestic segment of the reservation on his website? The international part had disappeared.

I called Northwest’s Public Relations department, where I confronted Mary Stanik with the above incidents.

Her replies are listed below.

1. Regarding Marcus’ vanished return booking — “When someone is ticketed on Northwest and stands-by on a partner flight (or an earlier/later same-day Northwest flight), the “downline” space can cancel if the airport doesn’t make a change to the passenger record (PNR) to show that the flights were used.”

2. “The change in your reservation to Istanbul was an agent error.”

3. “I have no satisfactory explanation for Henri’s vanished booking.”

American Airlines

My next call was to Tim Smith at American Airlines’ headquarters in Fort Worth. I presented him with two incidents we had personally encountered.

The first one occurred several years ago when we phoned to reconfirm my brother’s return reservation from Seattle to Tel Aviv and found that the airline had no record of him.

I explained to Mr. Smith that this was a continuing reservation and not a “no show” for the first leg of the trip, which would have automatically canceled the return. Mr. Smith was at a loss to explain the incident.

The second predicament befell my son Paul, who was traveling with three small children from Denver to Maui via Los Angeles. While the family was originally sitting together, when Paul phoned several weeks before departure he found out that all seats had been reassigned with the result that each child was placed far from every other family member.

While Mr. Smith could not explain what had happened, he stated that each of the following may result in a substitution of a previously confirmed seat:

• a change of equipment to one with a different seat configuration (to prevent similar problems in the future, American is standardizing its fleet and its interiors);

• an exit-row issue in which nonqualified people have been allocated to an exit row and need to be moved, or

• a situation involving disabled passengers, who may have to be reassigned to the appropriate seats.

British Airways

My next call was to British Airways to discuss the day-of-travel appropriation of our business-class seats on a Seattle-to-London flight in 2001.

Not wanting to sit in the center and have to climb over other passengers, I protested. The agent’s verbatim answer — “We needed the seats.”

A supervisor eventually restored the original booking.

After I was informed that no live person at British Air’s headquarters would take my call, I sent an e-mail requesting clarification of the airline’s confirmation policy. I received the following terse reply:

“Dear Dr. Wagenaar,

“Whilst we will try to honour your seating choice, we cannot however guarantee any particular seat, even if your reservation is confirmed.

“We reserve the right to assign or re-assign seats at any time.

“Thank you for contacting us.”

I was flabbergasted. There was neither an explanation nor an apology.

No longer is the customer king

As you can see from the above incidents, no traveler seems immune to unpleasant surprises. The axiom “the customer is king” has gone out the window, along with decent meals aboard.

Isn’t it amazing that customer relations have deteriorated so much that the University of Singapore found it necessary to offer a workshop titled “The Customer Is King!” with its objective “To Deliver Superior Customer Service.”

Elaborating, the course’s syllabus continues, “With technology and communication narrowing the gaps, there are little differences between the features of products. What separates the distinctiveness of your product is the level of quality service you provide. Delivering superior customer service will imprint your products in the minds of the consumers. Exceeding your customers’ expectations is their deciding factor in your battle for consumers’ dollars.”


Having read the above, you may want to use one or more of the following tactics to prevent any mishap from wreaking havoc with your booking.

1. If the airline agent answering your phone call seems incompetent (you usually can perceive this right away), hang up and try again. If necessary, talk to a supervisor.

2. After making a new reservation, compare your confirmation e-mail or fax copy with the data you have written down. If you have no fax or Internet access, call back immediately to double-check your itinerary.

3. Frequently monitor existing bookings and seat assignments, either by phone or online. Use your record locator to access your reservation.

4. Watch on the website while the agent makes requested changes in your reservation, to make sure your wishes are carried out.

5. Be vigilant and maybe, maybe, you, the customer, will be king again!

Dr. Wagenaar welcomes questions but may not be able to answer them individually.