Starting in the 1970s I used a travel agent for decades traveling on business every week.  Competent agencies were then indispensable to ferret out the lowest fares and to make last minute changes in the pre-Internet days of paper tickets. A single number to call saved me a lot of time, too, as agents juggled flights, hotels, and car rental bookings with ease.

As online travel booking improved, fares and schedules and rates became transparent and easy to book on my own, and of course they are fee-free.  But for some complex travel I persisted in an ongoing, if infrequent, relationship with an expert agency based in Jacksonville, Florida, Discount Travel, owned by Steve Crandell, that I have come to know and trust over many years.

Today’s incessant scheming versus inconstant execution by airlines has me depending more on my professional travel agent.  Air carriers have devised clever marketing “products” to vacuum more money from my wallet, but are the airline IT and human systems behind the curtain realizing the promises inherent in those schemes?  Lately, my personal experience points to no.

First came code-sharing, a practice that began in 1989 when American Airlines and QANTAS began putting their own flight numbers on each other’s flights in the US and Australia.  Soon everybody was doing it worldwide.  You would think by now, nearly thirty years on, that code-sharing would have been perfected, especially the backroom IT work of coordinating flight changes made by the foreign airline that impact the home airline’s customer itineraries.

And yet this past week my travel agent was checking an upcoming itinerary (late March) for me RDU to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China (airport code KMG) and found a serious misconnect had crept into the reservations and gone undetected by the air carrier partners.  I am booked on Delta in their new version of premium economy RDU/DTW and DTW/PEK.  In Beijing I switch to China Eastern, a Delta partner, on code-share flights to and from Kunming.

My agent noticed that, coming home on the reverse routing, China Eastern had made a schedule change KMG/PEK (but the same flight number) that would put me in Beijing some four hours after my Delta connection had departed.  Yet neither China Eastern nor Delta had alerted me or my agent, let alone rebooked me on an earlier flight that would properly connect to my Delta flight PEK/DTW.

Steve contacted Delta ticketing and pointed out the problem.  No one at Delta could tell him or me why the two airline IT systems had failed to see the glaring misconnect.  Luckily, there were seats still available on a much earlier China Eastern flight KMG/PEK that would arrive Beijing Airport’s Terminal 2 in plenty of time to make my Delta A-359 flight to Detroit, and DL reissued my ticket.  But had Steve not checked my itinerary, I would have been stranded in Beijing for at least an extra day.

An added bonus to Steve’s monitoring of my itinerary:  He also caught that my seat assignment on the Delta flight from Raleigh to Detroit was not in Comfort+.  When he called Delta, he discovered that the aircraft type had been changed from an RJ without Comfort+ seats to a 717 that did have the roomier seats.  But Delta ticketing argued that their international premium economy fare rules did not allow me a Comfort+ seat on domestic flights.  Steve had to point the Delta ticketing “experts” to their own fare rules that specifically allow customers buying international PE tickets to sit in domestic Comfort+ seats.  He also noted that I was already in Comfort+ DTW/RDU on the return leg.  So now I am in row 11 RDU to DTW.

I might have caught those errors, of course.  But I was glad that Steve at Discount Travel had my back.  He knew what to look for and who to call to fix it, and I didn’t have to waste my time doing it.  Both these cock-ups reinforced my commitment to professional travel agents.

Why did the IT and human systems fail me?  Who knows? But of course it isn’t just at Delta, as yesterday’s dog snafu on United proves (a pooch going to Kansas ended up in Tokyo, and vice versa).

And what about the complicated fare parsing now spreading from domestic to international flights?  Virgin Atlantic’s new coach fares come in three versions plus premium economy, but the airline won’t say yet what a checked bag costs in its cheapest category, called Economy Lite.

Could it be worse than on United and American overseas flights?  On UA and AA the cheapest economy fares make passengers subject to $50 for carry-on, but a fare that allows carry-on bags is just $25 more. Sometimes it pays to have a travel agent figure out which is best rather than expending time and frustration doing that research on my own.

Another example: Delta’s international Basic Economy charges $60 for a checked bag and no seat assignments, but my agent, Steve, was able to book the same Delta flights with KLM code-share flight numbers and got seat assignments just fine (and at no extra cost). The code-share issue makes it a bigger mess to figure out, once again demonstrating the value of an educated travel agent who does this all the time for business travelers.

When I was first planning my upcoming trip to Kunming, China—the itinerary explained at the top—I spent considerable time comparing itineraries on China Southern, another Delta partner, through Guangzhou with ones on China Eastern through Beijing.  When the schedules and fares seemed not to add up, I phoned Steve, and he instantly advised me which was the best value, most comfortable flights, and quickest time en route.  I should have called him first.  He has more than earned the $30 ticket issuance fee.  In fact I owe Steve dinner and a fine bottle of wine.

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