Friday, September 9, 2011

My Adventures with the Rate Desk

My first trip to California went off uneventfully -- except for the little incident in Beverly Hills where I was mistaken for a star (you'll have to ask me in person, since I can't publicly post anything less vague) -- but my second trip has been postponed. I can't say that I'm complaining; I could use a little decompression time. Plus I think this way I'll actually be able to make it to the Cleveland Play House's Open House at the Allen on Monday evening -- perhaps, if I can get off my rear end, I might actually make it to one of the first performances in their new space. [Please remind me. Frequently. Wave faux tickets under my nose if you must.]

But in changing my plans I had to call both Hilton and Continental: For Hilton it was a simple case of one of my hotel reservations (this trip has three*) being a bit curmudgeonly and not wanting to be changed online. Simple: Call the HHonors Diamond Desk, give them the new dates, presto changeo, that reservation is fixed.

For Continental, it was a bit more trying, but perhaps a bit of background is helpful: Airlines have classes of service (namely "First" and "Economy") and fare classes. Within each fare class there's a fare basis. Confused? So is everyone else, including a lot of people who work in the airline industry. Fare classes are frequently referred to as fare buckets. Each fare bucket is identified by a single letter -- for example A, B, C, F, Y. Still with me?

Each bucket represents a specific type of fare in a specific class of service, with a specific fare basis. The fare basis, is in turn linked to the fare rules spells out in excruciating detail** the rules associated with the fare. And on every flight each bucket is allocated a certain number of physical seats.

The only real consistency are the so-called Full Fares, F for First and Y for EconomY -- I was once told that that''s because Economy is at the back of the plane... get it? -- everything else depends on the airline. These offer the most flexibility, the fewest restrictions, and are typically the priciest tickets on the plane.

For example, on Continental in Economy fares are roughly (in descending order of cost and flexibility, and ascending order of rules and regulations) Y-B-M-E-U-Q-V-W-S-T-L-K-G***.

So on a 200-passenger aircraft, our cheapest fare bucket, "G" may be allocated a maximum of 4 seats; our mid-way "W" may be allocated a maximum of 100 seats, while the pricier "Y", "B", and "M" may have access to all 200 seats: This explains why you may have paid $600 for your ticket but the guy next to you only paid $150. He or she got to the cheap fare bucket first.

Most airlines will -- because it's required by federal law and just makes good business sense for comparison shopping -- quote, price, and book an itinerary in the lowest available fare unless otherwise requested by the customer.

In my case, when traveling for work I virtually always book in Full Fare Y economy, because it offers the most flexibility (completely refundable, completely changeable, free checked bags, and highest priority for reaccommodation in the event of travel disruption). Continental makes this very easy to do when booking a flight on but it's impossible when changing a flight on, for some reason

So I get the flight numbers, price it as a new itinerary on and then call. I speak with someone virtually instantaneously... give her the info, and when she prices it it's $450 higher. Same flights, same bucket -- Y -- and fare basis -- YUA -- Huh? She doesn't understand either so she transfers me to the helpdesk.

After 10 minutes on hold I repeat everything to the new agent, and she sees the fare I priced. She pulls the flights in to my reservation and initially everything looks good, until she goes to reissue the ticket. She has to reprice before she can reissue and when she reprices it grabs some unknown inventory and the price drops $600.

She can't see the the fare basis without issuing the ticket, which we both agree is bad. I've found that the fare dropping on a change is a huge red flag, waving with blinking neon, that the fare basis has been changed to something other than Y... which is bad, because you loose all of the Y benefits. She tries a variety of options without success or explanation for the drop. We're both concerned.

"It looks like I'm going to have to call the Rate Desk to figure this out" she says. Based on my recent track record, I'm not surprised.

The rate desk is one of those things crusty little corners of aviation history largely ignored by passengers, travel agents, and airline employees alike. The Rate Desk, among a family of other desks --such as the Agency Desk and the Group Desk -- hearken back to the days before technology and a literal desk provided the service.

While I haven't been able to locate any photos, I have this vision of someone sitting at a desk with one of those green brimmed-accountant's hats and an old-fashioned banker's light. I doubt that's the case.

The short version is the Rate Desk does what their name says -- they rate (as in set the price for) an itinerary. In the old days, from what I understand from a ex-travel agent friend who was in the business at the dawn of the computer era, the Rate Desk would be consulted if a published fare couldn't be located or if an unusual itinerary was required.

The functions of the Rate Desk have largely been automated, but there are still times when a human touch is required: A bit of research, a bit of black magic, . And based on how well insulated these humans are from the outside world. I have to assume that they're darn smart humans****. My agent has a chat with the rate desk, the rate desk figures out how to make everything work they way it should with my changes, and we're set.

But this is the fourth time this year I've had to have the Rate Desk intervene to fix a reservation. Should it be this hard? I want to give you (or in this case, you to keep) my money, in exchange I want to keep a nice flexible ticket. It doesn't sound that hard, does it?

Sigh. A


*- The first is a HHonors "free" (points) night at hotel #1 for a day of vacation; the second is two more nights at the same hotel, which is near my client, and paid for by my company. The third is a single night at a hotel near the airport because I have an early-morning flight
**- Everything from refundability and changes to the applicability of Tour Conductor discounts. Most important though are Advance Purchase and Minimum Stay restrictions.
***- Useless trivia: For a long time on Delta (perhaps this is still the case) the four cheapest fare buckets were [in order] S-L-U and T. Coincidence or inside joke?
****-The Continental agent I was on the phone with had to spend 30 minutes waiting for the Rate Desk to answer

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