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I was flying SFO-LAX-MEL on United. I had a 55 minute connection in LAX but the flight into LAX was ultimately delayed by 60 minutes. I spoke to a gate agent at SFO and she gave me a "backup" flight on Qantas. This flight appeared on my itinerary. I think on United it is impossible to be confirmed on two flights so perhaps the Qantas flight was something other than a confirmed flight.

I never gave up the United LAX-MEL flight and ultimately made the United connection.

What is a "backup" flight and how is it different from a confirmed flight?

  • 2
    It's not "impossible" for United to confirm you on two flights, they just don't. Was the original connection UA or QF, and how about the backup? I suspect that in this case your original connection was UA and you were additionally booked onto a QF flight. As it's a separate flight, not a codeshare UA "flight" on a QF aircraft, it wouldn't come under the usual way of working. – Jon Story Dec 23 '15 at 11:16
  • @JonStory You are right: the original flights were all UA on UA metal; the backup was a QF flight number on QF metal. – orizon Dec 23 '15 at 11:35
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    That makes sense then - they wouldn't confirm you on two of their own flights (because they know you'll only get one and can shuffle your booking down themselves if they know you won't make it), but the QF flight is out of their control so they can't leave you unconfirmed on it or they risk QF giving your seat away. – Jon Story Dec 23 '15 at 11:37
  • I should also have mentioned that I was told that if I missed the connection I would need to speak to a United agent before going to the Qantas gate. – orizon Dec 23 '15 at 11:42
  • That also makes sense, the United agent would need to confirm it in their system: I don't believe UA and QF codeshare, so your ticket would be a "cost" to United (akin to buying you a hotel if you had to stay over). This will need more interaction for them than simply rebooking you on a codeshare flight (which, to the gate agents, is simply another UA flight and needs no special handling - the complicated bit gets worked out later as per the codeshare agreements) – Jon Story Dec 23 '15 at 11:44
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United (and many other airlines) do this frequently for a number of reasons, including situations like yours.

The simple answer is that yes, you have a "confirmed" reservation on both flights - but you only have a ticket on one.

To understand exactly what they are doing you need to know the difference between a "reservation" and a "ticket". A reservation is basically your booking record. It's created when you first select your flights, but before you pay for them. It will include not only the flights that you're currently booked on, but also things like waitlisted flights, etc. Once a flight is added to your reservation in a "confirmed" status then basically a spot is reserved for you on that flight.

However before you actually use that reservation you need to pay for it. When you do that, a "ticket" is issued, which includes details of the flights you are confirmed on. Historically this was a physical piece of paper, but now days it's (almost exclusively) an electronic e-ticket.

If, for example, you make a change to the reservation (eg, you change to a different flight, or a waitlisted flight become available) then this change is first done on the reservation, and then your ticket is "re-issued" or "exchanged" which historically was the act of you giving back your old ticket and being given a new one with the new details on it, but today is just a change in a record in a computer.

Now, back to your question. What United will have done for you is to add a new flight to your reservation, which would have almost certainly have been in a "confirmed" status, but without removing the flight you're currently booked (and ticketed) on. So at this stage you're "confirmed" on both flights, but you only have a ticket for one of them.

If you manage to make it to your original flight (as you did) then the extra segment on your confirmation will be canceled (sometimes by an agent, sometimes automatically, or sometimes simply because a ticket was never issued for it by the time the flight was ready to leave), and it's as if it never existed.

However if you miss your original flight then the United agent will remove the segment you missed from the confirmation, and then re-issue the ticket without that segment, but now with the new Qantas segment. At this point you have a valid ticket for that new flight, so you're ready to fly!

If you had attempted to view the reservation on the United website after the additional segment was added you would have seen both flights listed, along with a message that your reservation has been modified and that you should contacted United to have your ticket re-issued, which is an indication that your ticket didn't match your reservation (in this case, as expected!)

Depend on who you're talking to this process can be referred to as "double-booked" (as you have two bookings between the same locations on different flights), a "backup booking", being "protected" on the later flight, or probably any of a dozen other terms. It's a process I've been through a lot, most recently last night due to a combination of delayed and overbooked flights!

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I just had a 30 minute call with a friend who is a professional ticketing agent. There is nothing officially called a "backup flight", but he got the idea and explained it to me.

What happens is, when the gate agent thinks that you will not be able to catch the flight, either by telling him in person or if the system detects that and shows some notification to him. The agent will have to find a solution, either by finding another flight or by cancelling the whole thing in case there is no way to catch the flight in your preferred times.

In your case, the agent found another flight and add it to your itinerary, nothing special so far. You had concerns about two flights in the same itinerary, I asked you in the comments for a copy of the itinerary just to show that there must some sort of a code there, as systems generally will delete duplicate confirmed sectors automatically, one of them must had some code, something like UN or UU depending on the system, it could be something else. These codes mean something like "unable to confirm".

So, most likely you didn't have two confirmed sectors, one of them was confirmed and the other was there as an FYI with a special code next to it.

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    This is incorrect. Both reservations would have been confirmed, but only one of them would have been ticketed. – Doc Dec 24 '15 at 3:16
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United seems to have changed their policy around backup flight bookings. while this was normal when you had a higher status to have a second option United does not do this. According to the agent on the phone they got told a couple of days ago that they are not allowed to put in backup flights anymore - even not for the 1k customers with a higher fare ticket (V fare to Europe). Reservation can be changed, but in result the original flights have to be given up.

This change in the policy will hit in particular frequent flyers which are usually travelling on busy times. In particular for the last connections at a day that means in most cases that you even loose the chance to reroute through other cities. By the time the delayed flight is in on the ground the last seats on flights going in the right direction are taken by others and you're stuck at the airport where connecting.

I understand that United is not interested in holding a lot of seats for all their customers. But in particular the frequent flyers who are dependent on a good service and are hit frequently by United's need to reschedule. One policy change by United more which screws the frequent flyers in particular.

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    +1 for nice info but I'm not sure this is the right question to post this answer. Maybe make it an own Q&A? – mts Oct 27 '16 at 20:58
  • This is a rant, not an answer to the question. Please note that we're not a discussion board: the only thing that should go in the answer box is an answer to the questionat the top of the page. – David Richerby Oct 27 '16 at 23:11

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