Business Travel Nightmare: Flying to the Wrong City

Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Passengers are pictured at Check-In desks at London's Heathrow airport.
Carl de Souza | AFP | Getty Images
Passengers are pictured at Check-In desks at London's Heathrow airport.

Melanie Marken was headed to her hotel to rest up for a business meeting in Bloomington, Ind., last month when she made a discovery.

She was in the wrong Bloomington.

Marken's travel agent had mistakenly booked her on a flight to Bloomington, Ill. And she had to drive nearly five hours to make her meeting in the Indiana city with the same name.

"Remember when you were a little kid and got lost at the mall?" she says. "That's what I felt like. … 'Now what do I do?' "

Even the most veteran of business travelers can inadvertently end up on the wrong flight — and in the wrong city. It's embarrassing, and even worse, it can foul up business meetings and potentially cost a company money.

Causes for a mix-up can range from the carelessness of a weary traveler to a travel agent's error in booking a ticket to the wrong city, road warriors and travel experts say.

"The traveler can e-mail a request for tickets to Philadelphia, for example, and end up on a flight to Philadelphia, Miss., not the intended destination," says Kevin Mitchell, of the Business Travel Coalition. "Sure, there are opportunities to catch such a mistake before leaving home or even at the airport. However, sometimes a harried business traveler is operating on information overload, or is just too tired to catch the error until an onboard announcement."

However rare the occurrence and whatever the reason, such a mishap can lead to frayed nerves, hasty rescheduling, and some serious driving to make up for lost time.

Ron Goltsch remembers being turned around by his boss, who in a rush assumed the client Goltsch was going to meet was based outside Memphis, Tenn.

Goltsch, an electrical engineer who lives in West Caldwell, N.J., flew into Memphis that same afternoon, rented a car and asked the agent how to get to Powell, Tenn. "We looked up the town,'' says Goltsch, recalling the incident that happened about a decade ago. "We were both shocked when we found it was nearly 400 miles away."

It was already evening, and Goltsch had to meet his client at 7 a.m. the next day. The rental car agent "took pity" and upgraded him to a Lincoln Continental at no extra cost to make the long trek to Powell more comfortable. Goltsch got there after midnight and made it to his morning appointment.

Since then, "I have become quite detail-oriented when it comes to travel arrangements," Goltsch says.

Tighter Security Helps

The likelihood of getting on a flight to the wrong city has diminished since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, if a flier has a ticket and boarding pass to the right destination.

Today's tighter airport security is supposed to prevent incidents like the one physician John Steinberg says he endured in the 1990s.

He was on board his flight, ready for takeoff, when he realized that instead of Charleston, S.C., he was headed for Charleston, W.Va.

"Feeling like a grade-A moron, I very sheepishly stood up and stated that I was on the wrong flight and that we had to return to the gate," says Steinberg, who lives in Randallstown, Md.

Steinberg had been running late and missed his original US Airways flight out of Baltimore. A gate agent told him there was another flight to Charleston that he could still make and that he should run for it, although he didn't have a boarding pass. She'd call the crew and let them know he was on his way.

Steinberg made the flight, the plane pushed off from the gate, and it began to taxi. That's when Steinberg realized the plane was going to the wrong Charleston.

Time was of the essence, Steinberg says. If he hadn't drummed up the courage to admit he was on the wrong flight, he'd have missed his dinner business meeting. Instead, the plane turned around, he was booked on another flight and he made the meeting.

The gate agent told him she was sorry she hadn't checked his ticket before sending him running.

Though some corporate trekkers are able to laugh off such incidents, Tommy Teepell says that his inadvertent sojourn caused him serious contemplation.

Back in the 1990s, Teepell, a head of marketing, says he was on a plane 10 or 11 times a week. One trip was supposed to take him from his home in Baton Rouge, La., to Albany, N.Y., to meet with a local sales team.

But when he landed, the rental car agent told him she had never heard of his hotel. It turns out that he was nowhere near Albany, but in Rochester, N.Y., instead.

"I figured the travel agency sent me to the right place," Teepell says of not noticing that his flight was headed to the wrong destination. "At some point in a corporate life you wake up and you hit the phone to find out where you are, because hotels and everything starts to look alike."

Still, Teepell says that not noticing — on his ticket, on board the flight — that he was headed to the wrong city was a wake-up call to the toll that constant business travel was taking.

"I remember getting in the rental car and thinking, 'I'm at the end of my rope,' " he says. " 'I've got to get some control over my life.' I was so busy racing from event to event, fire to fire, that I just showed up at the airport and went where the ticket told me to go."

But no more. After that, Teepell says, he cut his travel back by half.