Stuck on hold with an airline during bad weather? It’s only going to get worse

by Janice Hough on December 31, 2010


As travel to and from the U.S. east coast slowly returns to normal, more and more horror stories are emerging. Most of the tarmac delay stories involved international flights. But many domestic travelers, while at least they were not stuck on planes, faced canceled flights and hours on hold with airlines trying to get themselves rebooked.

And while the tarmac issues might be improved in future, for example if airlines either learn not to take off without a guaranteed gate, or if U.S. customs figures out an emergency plan for dealing with stranded flights, the phone problems are almost certain to get worse. Here’s why:

Airlines don’t actually want passengers stuck on hold. In fact, they would prefer they don’t call at all. Talking to humans, even in India, is comparatively expensive.

One of the airlines’ favorite new innovations, in fact, is the ability to automatically rebook passengers. This means that almost everyone booked with a major U.S. carrier will be automatically rebooked on something. Eventually.

The major problem, however, with these programs is that they only search “apples to apples” (ie, exactly the same itinerary) and they don’t keep looking. Which means, as a friend of mine found out this week, that a canceled flight for her family last Sunday, meant an rebooked flight for Thursday.

Plus, the programs don’t consider what many people would consider to be reasonable alternatives, a connecting flight from La Guardia vs. a nonstop from JFK, or a flight from say, Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami.

But unless they wanted to buy a new ticket, anyone who booked directly with their airline who didn’t like the new option, or who didn’t receive a rebooking message at all, had to get on the phone, which means a lot of busy signals and long hold times, even for elite fliers.

Yet airlines, instead of trying to beef up their reservation staffs or encouraging fliers to book with either “brick and mortar” or online agents, are doing exactly the opposite.

Just for an example, as a middle-elite level flier from United, I have been given, unbidden, five customer relations apology cards/emails this year with a choice of “tokens of appreciation” from the airline, for mistakes ranging from delayed luggage to broken seats, to an aborted landing. The “token” can always be a discount on a future flight, as long as I book on United.com.

As a travel agent, it’s not that it’s a problem to book on the United system. But it means I don’t even have the ability to rebook flights for myself if there’s a cancellation or delay, where I do have that ability with a regular GDS reservation.

And increasingly, with these customer relations discounts, bonus miles for booking on an airline site, and various other incentives, I know more and more people reluctantly booking online, especially for domestic vacation trips. (Which of course, do tend to be around the holidays, when the system is under the most stress.)

Besides the incentives for online booking, there are also disincentives to talk to humans. American Airlines, for example, charges for any seat assignment made by phone. Most airlines charge a fee, or higher fees, for booking or changing a ticket by phone. Which means they need fewer and fewer reservation operators.

What we have is a system where airlines are decreasing the number of human employees available to answer the phone, at the same time they are pushing people to book online where the only “human” option is one of that group of diminished employees. (While companies like Orbitz and Travelocity may not have the ideal customer service agents, at least they don’t have 90 minute hold times as far as I know.)

While things are getting worse, it could be worse, especially for domestic travelers. At least U.S. airlines have toll-free numbers. When the Icelandic volcano erupted earlier this year, many stranded travelers had to call Ryanair, British Airways and other carriers on United Kingdom phone numbers that incur charges. Which for many people meant on top of additional travel costs, horrific cellphone bills.

On the other hand, no domestic carrier yet has started charging for any and all phone calls. That could be next.

Of course, travelers who write to complain about the lack of customer service they received this winter will no doubt get more discount travel vouchers to be used online only, which means the overworked airline telephone staff will have to handle problems.

It could be a long winter.

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  • K

    The reason I always book directly with the airline versus using a travel agent, is that you actually have a chance of addressing the issue with someone at the airport.

    For instance, when I fly home, I always end up with a flight segment leaving Chicago to South Bend, IN. There is also a bus that runs the same route, and leaves several times a day. If the weather starts turning foul, and flights are being cancelled, the people at the airport are very good about arranging for passengers to take the bus versus waiting for rebookings (which can take days, literally, even in storms far less severe than this one, due to the planes being quite small and very full).

    Is a travel agent sitting in an office in California going to know, first of all, about some local bus line out of a random airport in Chicago? Unlikely. If they do, are they going to know who to call in Chicago to nudge on to refund the ticket because I’m choosing to take the bus? Less likely.

    If I’ve booked through a travel agent, will the airline do a thing for me? Nope. They’ll just let me sit and rot in the airport.

  • Scott

    @K: That’s ludicrous. No airline employee is going to say, “You booked through a travel agent. Sit and rot….we’re only putting other people on a bus.”

    Your first point actually has some merit, but you destroy your credibility when you say something so idiotic.

    The biggest difference in where you book your flight has to do with what happens when something changes with your itinerary, from schedule changes in advance to last-minute delays or cancellations. It is your BOOKING AGENT who has the responsibility to contact you about any changes, not the airline. (Of course, if you book direct, then the airline *is* your booking agent.) In fact, travel agents rarely provide the airline with YOUR contact information. They put their own contact information in reservations. Thus, often the airline cannot contact you even if they want to.

  • Paula

    Sorry K – A real or online travel agency booking can in fact be changed at the airport by the airline. If you used a agent in South Bend – they would also know the alternative transportation options.Yes Scott – the travel agency’s phone is in the first field of a GDS booking, but yours is the second line. You can also opt for alerts from the carrier in your frequent flyer profile – I get my mine from Alaska and American even when ticketed via GDS (except for certain bulk fares).

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