By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 9/6/2007 9:57:24 AM ET 2007-09-06T13:57:24

Q: I’m really hoping you can help me get this corrected before my trip becomes a disaster. I recently purchased two round-trip tickets from Philadelphia to Halifax, Nova Scotia on United Airlines’ Web site. All four flight segments have United code-share flight numbers but actually are on US Airways and Air Canada. After I paid for the tickets, I received a confirmation and everything seemed fine.

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But everything was not fine. When I called US Airways reservations to get seat assignments, they were not able to find my wife and me on the passenger list for either flight. I called United and spoke to a supervisor about the problem. She assured me that they were going to look into it and call me back. A week went by without a call so I called them again. Once again, they promised to look into it but nothing has been done yet.

United says we shouldn’t worry about this and to let it go until we check in at US Airways on the day of departure. But I’m really concerned that if I just let this go, my wife and I may not be able to take our trip at all. — Michael Watanabe, Philadelphia

A: You should worry about this. If you’re flying on US Airways, and the airline has no record of your reservation, do you really think they’re going to let you waltz onto the plane? I doubt it. United should have had the courtesy to call you back after two concerned phone calls.

Your case is a cautionary tale about two hot-button issues for air travelers: code sharing and call centers.

Let’s start with code sharing. For readers not familiar with airline-speak, a code-sharing flight is operated by one airline in partnership with another. Practically speaking, that meant you bought a United Airlines ticket but never flew on a United plane. Instead, two of your flights were on Air Canada and the other two were on US Airways.

That makes perfect sense for an airline, because it doesn’t have to operate as many flights, and can piggyback on a partner’s plane. But it makes no sense for a passenger. I mean, it’s a lot like ordering a Coke and getting a Pepsi. Code sharing is, as many industry critics have pointed out, fundamentally dishonest. And it also leads to problems like yours.

Which brings me to call centers. Phoning an airline for this kind of problem is a terrible idea. Unless you tape the call (which is time-consuming and impractical) there’s no record of what someone may or may not have told you. A letter or e-mail is far more useful, because it establishes a paper trail. A supervisor can promise to call back and get away with never doing it. But if the promise is in writing, you’re much more difficult to blow off.

Call centers are also troublesome because they’re often outsourced to companies and staffed with people for whom English is a second language. Don’t even get me started on that.

While it is impossible to avoid code-sharing partnerships, you can stay away from the phone. Remember: e-mail or letters usually work best when you’ve got a problem with an airline.

I contacted United on your behalf. A representative got in touch with you and explained that there was an “error in the United reservations computer speaking to the US Airways reservations computer” and they found your reservation. Have a great trip.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations,” on the Fine Living TV Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs. org.


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