What happens when changing a booking goes wrong. And how to fix it.

One of my friends got in touch with my yesterday with a tale of woe.  He had used his Avios to travel from Dallas to Frankfurt via London and return, in first class, for a two month trip to Europe this winter.

He called British Airways to make some changes to the return as he wanted to get the non-stop American Airlines flight from Frankfurt to Dallas, which they made.  However they didn’t perform a critical step correctly – what’s known as re-issuing the e-ticket.  That meant that American cancelled his reservation.  He’s now in limbo between American and British Airways trying to fix it.

How Airline Tickets Work

I felt it was worth explaining a little about how airline ticketing works so you can avoid falling into the same trap.

If you’ve been travelling for more than a few years, you may remember paper tickets.  These were physical bits of paper that were the payment for your trip.  A ticket covered an entire journey, say London to Paris and back, and there was a coupon for each flight in the overall ticket.

In order to make a booking, you went to a travel agent, or spoke to an airline’s city centre ticket desk and they made you a reservation.  They then took your money, and in exchange issued a ticket, with a coupon for each segment.

When you got to the airport that day, the check-in staff looked up your reservation, issued you with a boarding pass, where they would tear off your coupon for that flight segment, and staple it to the boarding pass.  When you rocked up at boarding gate, they’d take the large part of the boarding pass, take the coupon that was stapled to it, and give you the short stub to take on board with you.

That coupon then was sent back to the airline that issued the ticket so that the airline transporting you could get paid.

The Last IATA Paper Ticket

When paper tickets went away, the process stayed largely the same.  In order to travel, you need both a reservation, and an e-ticket number.

You may know the reservation as a record locator, but the industry tends to call it a Passenger Name Record (PNR).  That’s normally a set of six characters and the record holds details of you, the flights you want to take, plus a whole bunch of other stuff, even including meal choices!

However if you only have the record locator, you won’t be able to check-in or fly.  The PNR needs to have an e-ticket record associated with it.  This is a set of numbers where the first three digits correspond to the airline that made the booking.  I’ve listed some common ones below:

  • 001 – American
  • 006- Delta
  • 016 – United
  • 074 – KLM
  • 081 – Qantas
  • 125 – British Airways
  • 157 – Qatar Airways
  • 220 – Lufthansa

There are hundreds of them, so this is a brief list.  When you make a booking for travel from any airline on your receipt, you’ll see a ticket number.  I’ve taken a screenshot from one of my past bookings, although I’ve edited out a lot of the information and truncated the e-ticket number.

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 13.35.47

So what happened to my friend?

When he called up to make the changes to his flight, British Airways made a reservation with American Airlines.  They took all of my friends credit card details too.  However they did not ticket the reservation that they made.

Airlines routinely check to see if they have reservations in the system with no ticket number.  If they’ve been there fore a while, usually after five days or so, but sometimes longer, they will cancel the reservation.  After all, if there’s going to be no payment, then they are holding space that could be sold to someone else.  Which is what they did.

British Airways are now liaising with American Airlines via the oneworld helpdesk to see if they are able to re-release the space that was previously in his booking.

How do I prevent this from happening to me?

If you’re making a new booking, check that you have a ticket number in whatever receipt you get from the airline.  Make a note of this number as it’s very important.

If you make a change to your booking then one of two things can happen:

  • Your existing ticket number can be revalidated
  • A new ticket number can be issued

If you’re making a very simple change such as changing the time or date of your travel, but everything else remains the same, then it’s likely that your e-ticket number won’t change as it will still be valid.

However if you’re doing anything more complicated, like changing a routing, or changing an airline, then it will.

Logging on to an airline’s “manage my booking” tool may not be sufficient.  Your flights may show as “confirmed” which they are.  However there may not be an e-ticket number  associated with that sector, or it may not have been re-issued, and thus changed.  This is why it’s very important to know what the original number was, so you can see if it’s different.

Websites such as CheckMyTrip and TripCase can help, but not all airlines confirmation codes can be viewed on those websites.  For example American Airlines does use Sabre as it’s systems provider, but doesn’t allow directly booked reservations to be viewed anywhere other than AA.com.  The Lufthansa Group similarly restricts its directly booked itineraries being viewed on CheckMyTrip.  If you have made a booking via a travel agent, then it’s normally ok.

In short, none of this should matter to us passengers.  Airlines should be able to do this automatically and simply.  However they frequently don’t which is why it’s important to understand a little about how the process works, and what you need to say to the airlines to fix it when they inevitably screw up.

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