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How American Airlines nearly ruined my trip home before it had even started


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Right now, I’m back home in LA and in the middle of a tier point run that I didn’t really want to do, but it’s only thanks to a stroke of good fortune that I actually got home on my planned date. Thanks to a rather incredible screw-up by American Airlines, my whole trip was nearly cancelled before I had a chance to board a single flight.

The backstory

My trip home from London to LA  is made up of two separate bookings that see me returning to London next year but, to keep things simple (for the purposes of this post), I’m only going to concentrate on my outbound flights.

This is what my original booking looked like:

  • London – Sofia booked through British Airways and departing on a Monday
  • Sofia – London booked through American Airlines and departing on the same Monday as the London – Sofia flight above (these were back to back flights on the same aircraft with a 45-minute turnaround in Sofia)
  • London – USA booked through American Airlines and departing on the day after my London – Sofia & Sofia – London flights (I had an overnight layover in London).

I appreciate that to someone who doesn’t book positioning flights or convoluted itineraries very often that this may seem complicated, but it really isn’t. There’s nothing particularly tricky here.

A few months before my trip, a number of British Airways schedule changes meant that my London – Sofia flight from booking #1 and my Sofia – London flight from booking #2 got moved forward by a day which, in turn, meant that I had to also bring forward my London – USA flight if I didn’t want a 2-night layover in London – my outbound flights were now on Sunday and Monday instead of Monday and Tuesday.

Leading up to departure

In the week leading up to my departure date, I contacted British Airways and American Airlines to confirm my flight changes (I had held off from confirming them any earlier in case I needed to cancel my trip).

With the call to British Airways, things were simple as I was dealing with a British Airways booking for British Airways operated flights and everything was confirmed in a few minutes.

The call to American Airlines was longer because it involved bookings for flights operated by both American Airlines and British Airways and during the call, I got the sense that the agent wasn’t really 100% on top of what she was meant to be doing.

Nevertheless, once the call was over I could see that my itinerary on AA.com was showing the correct flights and within 24 hours of the call, I had an email confirmation from American Airlines showing the correct changes.

In my experience, there’s usually a tell-tale sign when an airline has somehow messed up a booking, and because I hadn’t felt that the American Airlines agent that I had dealt with had been completely on top of her game, I started to look for any indication that things weren’t as they should be.

  • I checked that the flight numbers, the flight times, and the flight dates displayed on my booking were what I expected them to be;
  • I checked that the latest American Airlines email confirmation showed an e-ticket number (confirming that my booking had been ticketed); and…
  • I checked that I could reserve seats for all segments of my booking

I found nothing wrong.

Still, just to be 100% sure, I called up British Airways and asked one of their agents if they could see anything wrong with the booking.

Because the booking in question had been made through AA and not BA, the British Airways agent couldn’t see as many details of the booking as if the booking had been made through BA, but she confirmed that as far as she could see, all was in order.

That was good enough for me.

The day of departure

Because of the various travel Covid protocols in place, I couldn’t check-in online for any of my flights so to make sure that I wasn’t rushed, I made sure that I got to Heathrow in plenty of time to deal with any paperwork that was needed.

BA’s flights to/from Sofia depart from Heathrow Terminal 3 and not BA’s home at Terminal 5 and as it turned out, this was a huge stroke of luck.

Note: When reading the next section, keep in mind that I’m meant to be flying to Sofia and then returning to London immediately (within 45 minutes) on the same aircraft that flew me to Sofia.

There was just one person in line ahead of me at the British Airways First Class check-in at T3 (I get to use the First Class check-in desks regardless of what cabin I’m traveling in courtesy of my BA status) so it wasn’t long before I was standing in front of an agent and asking her to check me in.

Specifically, however, I asked the agent to check me in for my Sofia – London segment before she checked me in for the earlier London – Sofia segments (I didn’t want to find myself in Sofia with just 45 minutes to turn around and without a boarding pass in my hand.

This is where things started to go wrong.

Obviously, I had to explain to the check-in agent that I was flying out on one booking and flying straight back on a second booking, and while none of this is particularly complicated (especially not for an experienced agent as this one was), there was something about my bookings that was confusing her.

The agent typed away at the computer in front of her, looked perplexed, asked me to confirm what my bookings were (for the second time), and then went back to typing into her computer.

You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to know that this isn’t a good sign and even a first-time flyer would have known that things were going wrong when the agent turned to me and said that the system wasn’t allowing her to check me in for my Sofia – London flight.

After I asked her why not? And after a period of silence from the agent as she stared at the screen in front of her, I got a reply that I really didn’t want to hear.

The agent’s expression of confusion turned to an expression of understanding as she announced the following:

“It looks like I can’t check you in because you’re not flying back today. You’re flying back tomorrow and we’re still more than 24 hours away from departure”.

I politely disagreed with her and after handing over a printed copy of my reservation and e-ticket details from American Airlines (which showed that I was supposed to be returning that very day), I pointed out that I couldn’t possibly be returning from Sofia the next day as that would see me missing my British Airways London – USA flight for which I had a valid seat assignment and which what showing correctly on BA.com

This just led to more confusion and with 90 minutes left before my flight to Sofia was set to depart, the agent placed a call to a department within British Airways and was promptly put on hold.

5 minutes later, the call was answered and after a conversation that I couldn’t hear, the check-in agent asked me to speak to the person on the other end of the line (a request that the agent herself admitted was highly irregular).

The person I spoke to was a little confused about why I was flying to and from Sofia in a single day but once the reason for that was cleared up, I was finally given an explanation for what was going on.

Although AA.com was displaying my correct itinerary, although BA.com was displaying my correct itinerary, although I had an e-ticket number, and although I had been allowed to select seats on all of my flight segments, American Airlines had somehow managed to change all of my flights to the correct dates except for the flight from Sofia to London.

Apparently, American’s systems somehow allowed an agent to ticket an itinerary that included an impossible routing (my Sofia – London flight was due to land at Heathrow over 7 hours hours after my London – USA flight was set to depart).

There was nothing that any British Airways agent could do about this as it was an American Airlines booking and an American Airlines error so it was up to American Airlines to sort this out.

At this point, there were 70 minutes left before my flight to Sofia, and had I been traveling out of Heathrow T5 that would have probably have been the end of my trip.

I would have had to call up American Airlines reservations to get the error corrected and with the phone line hold times being what they currently are, there would have been little chance of this being dealt with before my London – Sofia flight departed.

I would miss my London – Sofia flight which would lead to me missing my Sofia – London flight which, in turn, would lead to American Airlines registering me as a ‘no show’ and canceling my whole trip.

Fortunately, I wasn’t flying out of T5. I was flying out of T3, and T3 is the London home of American Airlines. In fact, there was an American Airlines desk just five paces away from where I had just spent the past hour discussing this mess with British Airways.

As I took the short walk across to the American Airlines First Class desk, I still couldn’t believe that it was possible for an agent to have made the error that British Airways had described, so a big part of me was expecting to be sent straight back to BA and for the saga to continue.

That’s not how things played out.

After I handed over my booking details and after I had explained to the rather surly American Airlines agent that BA was claiming that one of his colleagues had somehow managed to reticket all but one of my segments correctly, he put a call through to his airline. Five minutes later with no further questions asked, I had a new flight booking confirmation in my inbox and I was making the short walk back to the BA desk to get the boarding passes that I needed.

The screw-up had been exactly as the British Airways agent had described.

I made my London – Sofia flight with a little time to spare (I even got to take a look inside the recently reopened Qantas Lounge) and the turnaround in Sofia was as simple as it could possibly be, so everything turned out ok…eventually.

It was a close call and I still don’t know how it’s possible for an American Airlines agent to issue a ticket for an impossible itinerary while AA.com displays a different itinerary online (that seems like a serious control issue), but I’m past caring now.

I’m home in LA, I’m enjoying the SoCal sun and the flights I took have given me some good reviews for this blog, so all is well in my world 🙂

The moral of the story: You can never check an airline booking too thoroughly (especially if the booking has had changes made to it), and just because all the evidence that you can see online indicates that a booking is sound, a booking can still be wrong.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Needed to call AA to make a booking change last week and heard “the estimated wait time is 2 hours and 38 minutes.” After 3 hours I have up.

  2. @Makanmata – AA has a feature (unless maybe you aren’t in US) where you can hang up and get a call back within a range of time. I use it all the time as opposed to waiting on hold and it has never failed to work correctly. IMHO AA is much better in this regard than DL or UA and really eliminates any need to wait on hold to speak w them

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