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I picked up my phone at about 8:00 a.m. the other day as I was getting ready for work to hear a panic-stricken voice on the other end

Dan, I think I’m going to miss my flight!!!

I had used some of my airline miles to help her out with a flight she needed to take.  I was glad that I was able to help out, and it even proved a bit of a challenge because she needed to fly within the next week or two.  United and American (the airlines that would be most convenient to use) both charge $75 close-in booking fees (and fees are for suckers!).

In the end, I used American Express Membership Rewards to transfer 1:1 to Air Canada Aeroplan (in the Star Alliance with United), and used those Air Canada miles to book a roundtrip on United without the close-in booking fee.

The itinerary was SMF (Sacramento, CA) -CLE (Cleveland, OH) ; CLE-SFO (San Francisco).  Because she was flying out of Sacramento and returning to San Francisco (that was the only thing available under the constraints of her travel, it was considered an open-jaw flight (what’s an open-jaw?), but that is totally allowed under the Air Canada rules.

What do you do when it looks like you’re going to miss your flight?

All my hard planning (not to mention 25K Amex points!) looked like it was going to go down the drain.  Her outbound flight left at 5:40 a.m., and here she was calling me from the airport 30 minutes beforehand.


According to her, SMF is normally a sleepy little airport, but all of a sudden it was packed to the gills.  I never got from her exactly what time she arrived at the airport (though I imagine she was cutting it closer than she should have).  When she called at about 5:15 her time, she was still standing in line at the check-in counter waiting to check her bag, behind 7-10 people in a line that was not moving at all.

Flat-tire rule

So what do you do in that situation?  My first instinct was that she was just out of luck.  I suggested that she try to talk to some of the people in front of her to see if anyone had a later flight and would let her cut in line in the check-in counter, or try to somehow get the attention of a United employee to plead her case.

We hung up and I started doing some research.  United (as well as several other airlines) have what is called a “flat-tire rule

United’s senior vice president of customer experience, Martin Hand, confirmed its existence.

If you have a flat tire on your way to the airport, or are otherwise delayed because of circumstances beyond your control, United will let you stand by for the next flight at no extra charge.

That’s right: No change fee, no fare differential. If there’s a free seat on the next flight, you’re flying.

“You have to arrive at the airport within two hours of your scheduled departure time,” Hand told me. If a ticket agent balks, just reference the “flat tire rule” (that’s what it’s called) and yes, it’s a written policy, not something Hand made up during an interview with his favorite consumer advocate.

Don’t just not show up

I called her back to explain the flat-tire rule and she said that she had gotten a hold of a (in her words, rather surly) agent who told her that she had already missed her flight, and to go stand in the line for changes.

The other thing I wanted to make sure she knew was to not just leave the airport and try to find her own way to Cleveland.  Airlines have a policy whereby if you miss the first flight on an itinerary, all other legs on the same itinerary will be automatically canceled.  So if she had somehow just gotten a one-way ticket to Cleveland, then she would have had quite the surprise when she tried to get on her original CLE-SFO roundtrip.

Know your options

You’ll want to both get in line as well as call the toll-free customer service line.  The reason for this is that both are going to be busy, and so you’re laying a hedge against which option will get you helped sooner.  If you have status or lounge access, use that or head to the airport lounge, where you will likely face shorter lines and (hopefully!) more knowledgeable / helpful employees.  This is most important in situations when an entire flight is cancelled, because then you’re competing against hundreds of other passengers that are in the same situation you are, and the alternative flights are going to fill up fast.

Extra helpful is to know what flight alternatives our out there.  In this case, United probably isn’t going to fly you on another airline, but in a cancellation scenario, that may be an option, and any knowledge you have can only help (like when my flight to Atlanta was delayed and I suggested flying out of Indianapolis instead of Columbus)

In this case, on my way to work, I called up the United toll-free number and worked through the options with the agent on the phone.  We figured out a flight leaving a few hours later connecting through Houston that looked like it would work.  I called my sister back and the agent at the airport was in the process of booking her on that same flight (for free).

She was preparing to leave the airport and take a nap and came back.  Since I AM still the older brother, I couldn’t help myself in reminder her to make sure to leave plenty of extra time to get to the airport this time!!! 😀

Have you ever missed a flight or taken advantage of a “flat-tire” rule?  Let me know in the comments

Think you're going to miss your flight? Here are some things to remember.

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