Frequent flyer Jay Groh rarely calls airlines for help. The Atlanta sales executive books his travel online or on airline mobile apps with little trouble. Until the coronavirus pandemic. Like travelers around the globe, Groh had to cancel trips planned for 2020 and ended up with travel credits.
He kept getting error messages when he tried to redeem a Delta Air Lines credit online to book a flight for his wife’s 40th birthday trip to California this fall. So he called Delta. Twice. The first time he called in late May, the wait was more than two hours. He got in the virtual queue for a callback but missed the call due to a work meeting.
Groh called Delta again a week and a half later – on a Tuesday around lunchtime. The quoted wait time: 7 hours and 40 minutes. He eventually got booking help from a Delta representative on Twitter, but the delays cost him: the ticket price went up to $200 from his initial online search.
“If the website had worked, I would have booked on the website and locked in the $500 price for the ticket,” he said. Travelers returning to the skies this summer after COVID lockdowns can add long wait times to reach airlines to the already lengthy list of frustrations as travel rebounds more quickly than even airline executives poised for the pent-up demand expected. One traveler said in a Twitter post that she accidentally fell asleep while on hold with an unnamed airline and was still on hold when she woke up.
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USA TODAY called the customer service lines of the 10 largest U.S. airlines on Wednesday, June 2, in the afternoon and found waits as long as eight hours and 31 minutes at Delta. The airline was so swamped, it didn’t even offer a callback option.
American quoted a wait of between two hours and 28 minutes and three hours and 23 minutes but offered the unique option of scheduling a call anytime in the next week. JetBlue had the next-longest wait at 75 minutes. Calls to Hawaiian Airlines and budget carrier Allegiant resulted in repeated busy signals.
At the other end of the spectrum, the spot check found 20 minutes or fewer waits at United and Southwest. I reached someone immediately at budget carrier Frontier, which doesn’t have a toll-free line. Spirit Airlines did not quote a time, so I hung up after 20 minutes on hold.
Airlines are warning travelers about the long wait times
Airlines admit their call centers are overwhelmed, and many have posted alerts about the situation on their websites. Some had returned to advice from early in the pandemic when phone lines were flooded with travelers trying to cancel trips: don’t call unless you are traveling soon.
At the top of Hawaiian Airlines’ website, a red banner says: “Our contact center is experiencing extended wait times. Guests without an immediate need for assistance should contact us later. We appreciate your patience and understanding.”
On Allegiant’s website, the first item under travel alerts is about high call volume. On JetBlue’s website, the second item under travel alerts is about longer-than-usual wait times, under the headline: “Skip the (phone) line.”
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Airlines blame the long wait times on a surge in calls and fewer customer service agents to help them. Last year, airlines rushed to match employee levels with sharply lower travel demand, offering voluntary leaves and early retirement packages in droves. At American Airlines, 25% of its reservation center staff accepted such offers, according to Julie Rath, vice president of customer experience and reservations.
Staffing levels weren’t an issue until travel started to rebound. Rath said Americans began to notice an increase in calls in April as COVID vaccination rates increased and people started thinking about traveling again, with a big spike beginning in May as summer travel season loomed.
“The volume came back really rapidly,” she said. And the calls coming in are more complicated than in the past, given a slew of COVID-19 travel restrictions, questions about testing, confusion over travel credits, among other issues coming up as people navigate the return to travel after more than a year in many cases, Rath said.
“The calls do take a bit longer,” she said. American and other airlines have detailed information on COVID requirements and travel restrictions on their websites, as well as step-by-step instructions on booking a ticket with travel credits. But many travelers, especially infrequent flyers and those taking international trips for the first time during the pandemic prefer to talk to a representative, Rath said.
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American anticipated an uptick in bookings, of course, and in March recalled employees who were on temporary leaves, some as long as a year, Rath said. But it hasn’t been enough, especially when bad weather in a central hub like Dallas prompts a flood of calls to reschedule flights and compounds the wait times.
American recently reached out to recent retirees, including those who accepted early-out offers, to come back for the summer, and is also on an “aggressive” hiring binge for its four U.S. call centers and home-based agents, Rath said.
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“We’re laser-focused on fixing (the staffing shortage),” Rath said. “We want everyone to get through rapidly and make sure that we’re always here for our customers.” Delta is adding temporary summer help at its call centers and is hiring 1,300 employees to handle calls, spokesman Morgan Durrant said.
“Wait times are not what we want for our customers when they need to contact us, so we apologize to our customers for the inconvenience,” he said in a statement. Budget carrier Allegiant is also increasing staffing at its call centers, spokeswoman Hilarie Grey said. Alaska Airlines enlisted a senior vice president to apologize to customers while they were on hold.
“We’re excited to see our guests planning travel again, but that means more calls and longer-than-normal wait times,” Sangita Woerner, senior vice president of marketing and guest experience, says in a recording played when waits are particularly long. “We know your time is valuable, and we sincerely apologize for the wait.”
Sick of being on hold? Tips for travelers who need help from an airline
►Get essential information about travel restrictions, requirements, and how to redeem those travel credits from the airline’s website.
►Before calling, try to book or change your trip online or the airline’s mobile app.
►Check for options to chat with the airline online, via text, or on the mobile app. Many airlines have added these services. JetBlue, for example, offers support via live chat or Apple Business Chat.
►When offered, join the virtual queue and note the projected time, so you’re available to answer. American even allows customers to schedule a call back a week in the future to spread out the volume of calls and staff accordingly.
►Call during off-peak hours. American says the book is the lowest overnight and early in the morning.
Tom Loebig, a freelance media consultant from State College, Pennsylvania, turned to Twitter after multiple waits on hold with United Airlines. He had booked a last-minute business trip to Houston and forgot he had a credit to use that would cover most of the ticket price.
Loebig wanted to talk to someone at United about canceling that ticket and reissuing it with the credit. He tried online chat but found the replies to be “blank, unemotional kind of responses.” He called the airline a few times, bypassing several steps by saying “agent, agent, agent,” and was always on hold. One time he asked for a callback but didn’t receive one. So he turned to Twitter this week. An agent canceled the first ticket and let him rebook using the credit as a “goodwill gesture.”