How a Common United Ticketing Glitch Almost Made Me Miss My Flight

Jun 5, 2018

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This weekend, I made my way from Bergen, Norway (BGO) to my home in New York. Norwegian flies nonstop between BGO and Newburgh Airport (SWF), about 90 minutes north of the city, and fares are often dirt-cheap, but I wanted to add a new review to the list. That brought me from Bergen to Oslo (OSL) and on to Warsaw (WAW) to catch my LOT 787-9 Dreamliner flight to JFK.

Changing the Ticket

We booked the all-business-class trip using 70,000 MileagePlus miles, which meant any changes needed to be made through United. When I received an email informing me that my flight from Bergen would be delayed by 45 minutes, causing me to misconnect, I called up UA’s Premier 1K line and asked to be moved to a later flight to Warsaw. Apparently, that change resulted in my ticket to fall “out of sync.”

In this case, that meant that the new ticket number United assigned hadn’t been passed over from UA’s reservations system, SHARES, to Scandinavian’s system, Amadeus. I knew something was up when I couldn’t check in for the SAS flight online, especially since I could check into my connecting LOT flights without issue. I also wasn’t able to access the reservation on UA’s site, so I gave the 1K desk another call.

The agent tried pulling up the reservation through Scandinavian’s site as well, and saw the same error, but insisted that the ticket had been properly reissued. She even checked with several other agents, who confirmed the same. Still, out of an abundance of caution, she suggested that I arrive at Bergen Airport a bit earlier, just in case I had trouble checking in.

The Airport Agent Fix

I arrived at the airport about 20 minutes earlier than originally planned — 90 minutes before my departure time. I first tried the kiosk, where I received the following error message:

My next stop was the check-in desk — with most of the check-in process entirely automated, there were only two available agents, offering assistance to both SAS and Wideroe passengers. After a five-minute wait in the business-class line, the agent attempted several times to check me in, then called over her colleagues to take a look.

When they couldn’t figure it out, I was referred to the “service center,” a short walk away. The agent there identified the problem quickly, explaining that my Bergen to Oslo flight didn’t have a ticket number assigned. Fortunately, my LOT boarding pass email did have the ticket number listed, so I provided that to the agent and she typed it in. An SAS boarding pass printed a moment later.

Other Partner Award Issues

This isn’t the first time I’ve had problems with a partner award booked by United. The most common challenge I run into is with award space that doesn’t actually exist — in the biz, we call this “phantom space.” If you’re especially persistent, and you manage to get the “phantom” award added to your ticket as “waitlisted,” you might be able to get your request escalated to a “Star Alliance liaison,” who can work with the partner airline to get the ticket issued. This isn’t always successful, and it can take an awful lot of calling around.

Another common issue is partner space that appears, and is legitimate, but comes back unconfirmed after 24 hours. I’ve had this happen with a handful of partners — even Air Canada. Typically, the ticket is never issued in this case, and sometimes a United agent will email you or give you a call to discuss alternatives.

Other times the only way to know your ticket wasn’t issued is to pull it up on United’s website, so I always check my award bookings on UA’s site a few days after making a reservation. This issue caused TPG’s friends to miss a flight to South Africa, since the partner, South African Airways, insisted that the ticket had never been issued by United, and — with the flight entirely full in business class — there was nothing they could do.

Finally, I’ve booked a handful of awards or paid partner flights where United displays seat assignments that don’t match those actually reserved with the carrier. Always ask United for the partner confirmation number and confirm your seat assignments with the operating carrier — if you book a Lufthansa flight through United, head over to LH’s site with your Lufthansa confirmation number and make sure you have the seats you want. I’d say the seats displayed on are inaccurate more often than not.

Bottom Line

Since my flight was delayed, ultimately I ended up making it on board — had it left on time, however, I almost certainly would have missed it, and the onward flight to Warsaw. Because United was convinced that the ticket was reissued correctly, it’s not clear who would have taken responsibility for getting me home.

Ultimately, while airline agents may do everything they can to make sure you can fly if a booking system glitch results in a ticketing issue, finding and implementing a solution can take time — if you’re cutting it close, you might end up missing your flight. In this case, United was convinced that everything was buttoned up — what the agents didn’t realize is that while the ticket appeared a-okay in SHARES, the ticket number had fallen off in Amadeus.

It ended up being my responsibility to recognize that there was an issue, and even to help find a solution. If you have a feeling that something isn’t quite right, make sure you leave plenty of time to get it sorted at the airport.

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