Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Changing Places

I like American Airlines.  I really do.  I've linked my credit cards to their mileage programme, I've chosen the One World Alliance as my preferred travel group and every time I travel I try to use AA first and only when that doesn't work either for cost or convenience do I use another airline.

Here's a generalization too.  Airlines suck in the main.  Airlines in the US the most -- OK the budget ones in Europe are rubbish too but I don't use them as much.  Far Eastern airlines by contrast are nice -- it all comes down to the service really.  The high oil cost sucks up most of the airlines' revenues so cutting service is the only way they can do more than break even (AA is currently in Chapter 11).  Who in their right mind would buy shares in an airline?  Well I would actually if the price of oil falls a bit more but that's not the point of what I was about to say.  Airlines have become glorified buses -- convenient and largely commoditized.  My dad was an airline pilot in the 1950's and 1960's and back then it was THE classy way to travel and it was priced accordingly ... and of course oil was dirt cheap too.  If you don't believe me, watch the Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hanks movie 'Catch me if you can' and see how pilots were treated.  THAT is a realistic portrayal of how pilots were considered -- the rock stars of the 50's.

Everyone has their airline horror stories, me too but they mostly get resolved with a bit of give and take on each side.  And really moving millions and millions of pieces of luggage and only mislaying the odd one is pretty good.  Yet the thing I don't get is the advent of the computer and its integral part to play in the lunacy that is pricing airline tickets.

Years ago AA in concert with I think IBM developed the first integrated airline ticketing system called SABRE.  It revolutionized the process of airline travel.  Before that everything was hand written on multi-part multicolored tickets that actually looked pretty stylish now that I come to think of it.  Now a central computer could figure out routes, flights and prices. It was a massive innovative advantage for AA and one that they were able to leverage across the airline industry.  Scroll forward to today and everyone has access via the internet to similar capabilities from the sanctity of your own front room.  And it was there back on December 14th 2012 that I made that fateful reservation MMYSRJ.

It was quite simple really and thankfully worked out alright in the end (see my earlier posts from Costa Rica) but at a quite substantial and nonsensical cost of both time and money to both me and AA.

All I wanted to do on MMYSRJ was to fly from Bermuda to Costa Rica via Miami.  It took 10 minutes and my credit card to do.  Fantastic price too for business class.  $892.21.  Quick, easy, just perfect in fact.

Then things went pear shaped for I decided that seeing as I was near my office in the Cayman Islands and was flying through its main gateway city, Miami, I just had to pay a visit.  Having been through what in retrospect were minor flight changing idiocies I realized that I had to call AA to make the small change of turning right as it were to Cayman instead of going straight on to Bermuda.  I would return a couple of weeks later retracing my steps and join the Bermuda flight.

All that was needed was postponing my Miami/Bermuda flight by 2 weeks.

This sounds incredibly simple to me.  Just change the return date and create an all new return air ticket to Grand Cayman in between.  The connections worked out just fine (both in theory and in practice).  So could I do this?

Well, 'yes' and 'no'.  Actually more like 'no' and reluctantly 'yes'.

The ticket I had purchased on line was in a certain class and that class couldn't be changed as it was a through flight to San Jose so I couldn't stop in Miami, I had to carry on.  That was what I wanted, I told the AA phone operator.  It was on the return leg that I couldn't stop off.  I had to continue straight ahead.  But I cannot anyway, I told the AA operator.  US regulations mean I have to clear my bags and then re-check them at Miami so technically I have stopped off in Miami.  If I wanted I could head into downtown Miami for lunch and then return for the onward leg, so why couldn't I instead fly to Grand Cayman?  And then came THE answer that mattered.

The system won't let you.

And here is THE crux of things.  It is a logical, no thought processor that determines how we fly, what we pay and whether we get bumped or not.  Common sense is markedly absent.

The computer was told by me to book a ticket from A to B via C which it did and priced.  Why on earth would I then want to change it?  Illogical.  You make a decision.  You stick with it.  Very Doctor Spock like, the Star Wars Spock not the other one.

"You humans are illogical"

Because I changed my mind!!

Well, you can't.  

OK then so what if I re-book the self same ticket and factor in the trip to Cayman?

Well, I can do that for you, sir... now let me take a look, factoring in the side trip to Cayman, the change fee and the re-pricing of the flights, that's an extra $2,600 sir.  Can I go ahead and make the changes for you?

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  What do you mean an extra $2,600?  That's insane.  I could simply walk off the flight and go and buy another ticket to Cayman and you'd never know about it and it would cost me far less -- (actually $400).

You can't do that, sir.  The computer would then cancel the ticket.

Which ticket?  

The Miami/Bermuda leg.

That's OK.  So why can't I do that then?  I have to clear my bags in Miami anyway.

The system won't allow it, sir.

How will it know?

I realised I was rapidly falling into a rabbit hole rather like Alice in Wonderland but didn't have the security of knowing if a mystery mushroom would be waiting at the bottom to make me either larger, smaller or preferably take me away from all this insanity altogether.  Anyway the AA operator suggested I go to the airport and have a go there seeing as this wasn't working.  As we have a ticket office in the centre of Hamilton, that's where I went.

My visit to the AA office in Hamilton was another lengthy affair this time one on one, almost.  The AA lady having grasped the essentials then had to get on the phone presumably to the same operator I had spoken to in vain for it took quite a while for the AA lady to speak to me again.  The suggestion was why not re-book the entire flight so it would be Bermuda/Miami, then Miami/San Jose with the return leg being San Jose/Miami and finally Miami/Bermuda.

But that's what I'm doing already!

No you're not, sir.  You're flying Bermuda/Miami/San Jose there returning San Jose/Miami/Bermuda.  Its a completely different flight.

No its not.  Its exactly the same!  

Not to the computer, sir.

The computer again!

OK then, so can you try that then please?

Certainly sir, simple... now repricing this, the full fare will be $2,092 which makes another $1,200 plus the $150 change fee.  Shall I make the changes, sir?

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  What do you mean $2,092?  Its exactly the same flight and exactly the same seat.  How can that make sense?

Perfect sense, sir.  Completely different trip.  Would you like me to now price the add on flight to Cayman?

Sure, why not.  Please go ahead.

That will be another $400, sir.  Shall I book it for you?

Actually no.  We went back and forth for a while trying to make a common sense connection which is actually difficult when one person has been conditioned to think in computer-speak.  However we made it through the barrier finally.

What if we try to simply book another trip leaving this one alone, sir?  We book a return flight to Cayman and then a one way ticket to Bermuda.  

This took a while of back and forth on the telephone with some other AA person.  The AA counter clerk clacked away on the computer for a while asking what 'codes' to enter and ultimately BUQIPS popped out -- a snip at $771.85.

It was better than $2,000 so I agreed to this solution.  The plan being that I simply not complete the final leg on my previous ticket and check into the new flight -- which I believe is what I suggested somewhere to someone somewhere along the tortured and torrid way.

All worked fine until the day before I was due to leave Costa Rica when I received an email from a work colleague saying AA had called and would I call them back.  Fearing the worst I called AA as requested who told me I had 2 reservations to leave Miami and that the computer was about to cancel them both as there shouldn't be more than one.

Note the twin reservations from Miami to Bermuda supposedly disallowed by 'the System'.  I think I may have had a 3rd reservation on my new ticket -- BUQIPS!
Why would both reservations be cancelled?

Because the system doesn't allow reservations for the same person the same.

But that's what another AA person suggested and ... (here I paused waiting for effect using a compelling counter argument, or so I thought) ... if I can't have 2 reservations in the system, why did it let me do it in the first place and why did you, AA, recommend that course of action?

I don't know, sir.  All I know is that the system won't allow it and is about to cancel one of your reservations.  Which one would you like me to cancel?

Neither!  So now I'm about to go from having 2 reservations to none and be out of pocket by nearly $2,000 because the 'system' doesn't allow what it did a few days earlier.  But then the AA operator had a brain wave.

You could fly back to Bermuda on that day and fly out of Bermuda on the early flight the next day and we reprice that ticket for you... that would be $700 out of Bermuda one-way to Miami.  You can then pick up your connection that you've already booked.  That way you could keep both reservations active.  Shall I do that for you, sir?

But how does my flying back to Bermuda and out again the next day affect the tickets I already have?

You would have completed the full journey back to Bermuda, sir.  That is in the system.

The S-Y-S-T-E-M again!  I asked to speak to a supervisor as I'd been on the telephone for 45 minutes at this point and after a while a supervisor came on.

The issue, sir, is the business class ticket.  Its always full on this flight.  Maybe we could try it in coach for a better price... now here's a solution for you.  15,000 air miles, $8.20, in coach and an upgrade to business class.

Sounds a lot better to me but I don't understand why I need to get an upgrade to business class as I already have an assigned seat.  I'd be upgrading to my own seat!

That's not the way the system lets me do this, sir.  I have to put you in coach and then request an upgrade.

But its my seat!  If I say 'OK', surely you just cancel my current seat and then put me straight back into it using the upgrade as the seat that has just become available is my own seat and so I would in fact get upgraded to my own seat.

Oh no, sir.  It becomes an entirely different ticket and an entirely different seat.  But I have managed to waive the ticket change fee and mileage but it will still cost $8.20 to complete.

I know when I'm beaten so I paid the $8.20 and at the airport things went smooth as silk even though my upgrade was given to someone else!

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