Sunday, 15 April 2007

The Amazing Race 11 (All-Star Edition), Episode 9

Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) - Hong Kong SAR (China)

Once again in the latest episode of the “reality” television series about travel, the deciding factor in The Amazing Race 11 was which teams got on the fastest flights.

With six nonstop flights a day on three airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, it wasn’t a question of finding the best connection. And all the teams figured out that the first flight was neither on a Malaysian nor a Hong Kong-based airline, but on China Airlines, which has the rights to carry local traffic on the daily nonstop legs between Hong Kong and K.L. (as well as those between Hong Kong and Singapore and Hong Kong and Bangkok) of its through flights to and from Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Instead, it was a question of which of the teams actually got on the earliest flights, after they were all told those flights were “fully booked”.

As is routine in such a situation, each team was offered the chance to have their names “placed on the waiting list”. That’s a misleading term, since most airlines — certainly including the ones involved in this incident, China Airlines and Malaysian Airlines (MAS), have multiple waiting lists for each flight.

The racers were told their chances were “very slim”. That might have been an accurate statement of the airline staff’s assessment of the situation, or it may have been at attempt to dissuade them from bothering to try. Airlines want their flights full, so they would prefer to have a few people standing by to take the place of any last-minute no-shows. But waiting lists are decidedly unwanted extra work for the ground staff, especially with impatient and demanding waitlisted passengers in their face at the ticket counter or in their office.

Each of the teams attempted — with varying degrees and styles of rudeness and cultural insensitivity — to plead their cases and argue with the staff about who was “first on the list”.

But their tactics portrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of waiting lists and how they work.

All airlines overbook their coach/economy (third class) cabin. Some also overbook first and business/club class. Airlines expect a certain number of no-shows and unticketed reservations. Airlines can’t always tell if tickets have been issued, and don’t want to cancel reservations that might be ticketed. So airlines confirm more reservations than there are seats.

When they say that a flight is “fully booked”, that means the airline has confirmed as many reservations as they are willing to confirm for that flight, at that time, in that booking class. It doesn’t mean the flight will actually be full. It’s normal for last-minute “walk-up” passengers to be told that they will have to stand by until the cutoff time when confirmed passengers forfeit their seats as no-shows. It’s equally normal for walk-up passengers to be boarded at that time, if they are willing to pay full fare.

If they are next on the proper waiting list, a passenger can be confirmed from a waiting list as a result of any three actions:

  1. A confirmed reservation is cancelled. Either someone deliberately cancels their reservation; or a time limit expires without the airline receiving notice that tickets have been issued, and the airline (automatically or manually) cancels the reservation; or someone fails to re-confirm and their reservations are cancelled 72 hours before scheduled departure; or they no-show and their reservations are cancelled (typically between 30 minutes and 2 hours before the flight, depending on the airline and whether it is a domestic or an international flight).

  2. The airline decides to allow more confirmations in that booking class on that flight. That could be because of changes in how many no-shows or unticketed, uncancelled reservations the airline expects (airlines use a combination of past experience and patterns, human experts, and expensive, extremely sophisticated software to make these predictions); because a sufficiently high level of supervisor decides to authorize a higher level of overbooking in order to be able to confirm a specific passenger or group; or because the airline reallocates its confirmation limits from one booking class to another (for example, to make more seats available for sale in a lower-fare booking class if it doesn’t expect to sell them for full fare).

Different airlines have different procedures for making these decisions. Is “capacity management” highly automated or manual? Is it centralized at the airline’s headquarters, or delegated to the airline’s office at the city or airport where the flight originates? Or does that depend on how far in the future the flight is scheduled to depart? Are local decisions made by the station manager or by lower-level sales or operations supervisors? Is the airline more influenced in these decisions by financial analysis (which potential passenger will generate the most profit?), personal relationships and loyalties (to individual passengers and/or travel agencies and agents) — or bribes (rare, actually).

Once the flight is as far overbooked as the yield management system is programmed to allow, manual decisions are typically made on a case-by-case basis. It’s not a question of, “Should we override the system to confirm X number of additional people on this flight?” but “Should we override the system to confirm this specific party?” Different levels of airline staff have the authority to authorize different degrees of overbooking. Typically, the flight is placed under “airport control”, meaning that authority to make these decisions is transferred from headquarters to the local office, sometime between 24 and 12 hours before scheduled departure.

Only someone who works for the airline, or a travel agent with a lot of experience working with that airline, is likely to know which strategy is most likely to get a particular waitlisted reservation confirmed. Is is better for the passenger to make the request directly, or have it made by a travel agent? Is it better to plead your case politely in person at a ticket office, call the telephone reservation center, have the agency phone their contact at the airline’s sales office, or have the agency send an electronic confirmation request through their CRS ?

Most people assume that a waiting list is a first-come, first-served queue. That’s usually true, but usually irrelevant, because there are usually many waiting lists for any one flight.

There are separate waiting lists for each booking class. People willing to pay full fare, or already holding full-fare tickets, will be confirmed before passengers in low-fare booking classes. Waitlisted or standby non-revenue passengers, such as airline staff and holders of frequent-flyer tickets, will be confirmed or boarded only after all paying passengers.

For each booking class, there are typically three or more waiting lists. You can get on the lowest-priority waiting list just for the asking. An airline supervisor, sales manager, or revenue manager’s authorization is usually needed to get you on the priority waiting list. The highest priority waiting list is reserved for those authorized by the station manager or other high-level supervisors. People who haven’t yet bought tickets are less likely to be placed on the highest priority waiting than people who already have tickets, but whose reservations were cancelled (perhaps in error), who were involuntarily bumped from other flights, or who need to change their reservations due to truly dire emergencies.

The racers spent a lot of time arguing about their places in line, but they would have been better advised to focus on which line they were in. Where you are on a particular waiting list is usually much less important than which waiting list you are on. Unless a very high-level supervisor intervenes, everyone on the highest-priority waiting list for the highest booking class will be confirmed before anyone on any of the other waiting lists. The question to ask is not, “How many names are on the waiting list ahead of me?” but “Can you put me on a higher-priority waiting list, please?” If the answer is, “I don’t have the authority to do that”, ask, “Can you please send a message to ask that I be put on a higher-priority waiting list.”

Travellers often want to know, “If I put my name on the waiting list for this flight at this fare, will I eventually be confirmed?” A travel agent who sells a lot of tickets on that specific flight, and has been doing so for years, may be able to make a pretty good guess. But nobody knows for sure. If you are waitlisted at the airport on the day of the flight, like the racers, you’ll find out when it departs if you got on. Further in advance, it’s hard to judge how long to wait for your waitlisted reservations to be confirmed, and when to give up and make some other reservations that you can confirm. I’ve had customers confirmed after months on waiting lists, but I wouldn’t generally wait more than a couple of weeks on a waiting list, even for a flight many months in the future, before making alternate arrangements.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 15 April 2007, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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