Passengers lash out after being unable to contact reservation agents

Travelers say airlines’ customer service failed

Image: Luggage
Andrew Gombert / EPA An American Airlines worker helps travelers with luggage at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, on Wednesday.

By DAVID KOENIG
The Associated Press

Travelers are lashing out at airlines for poor customer service after this week’s storm on the East Coast left thousands stranded and unable to get through to reservation agents.

Travelers are incensed over what they say is the airlines’ effort to blame everything on the weather and take themselves off the hook.
Video: Northeast struggles to dig out of blizzard mess (on this page)

“We don’t blame the airlines or airports for bad weather, but it’s their responsibility to be prepared,” said Brandon Macsata of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. “The airlines just seem to be saying, ‘Suck it up.’ People are tired of sucking it up.”
Story: Caribbean vacation turns into airport stranding

Travelers calling to rebook flights earlier this week in huge numbers were put on hold for hours or told to call back later because the major airlines have fewer reservations agents to take their calls.

For example, Continental cut 600 call-center jobs — nearly one-fourth of its 2,600 reservations workers — in February. A few months before that, it closed a center in Florida and cut 500 jobs. American Airlines cut about 500 when it closed a center in Connecticut.

United Airlines has 10,000 customer-service and reservations employees, down from about 15,000 in the early 2000s, according to Rich Delaney, president of the machinists’ union, which represents the workers. United once had 17 reservations offices; it now has three, he said.
The airlines cut staff because so many people now book tickets online. The airlines themselves encouraged the trend by charging customers a fee to book over the phone.
US Airways imposed mandatory overtime for customer-service workers to handle calls during the storm. American Airlines said it asked people to cut short vacations and extended the hours of part-time workers at call centers and airports.

It still wasn’t enough to handle a volume of calls that was more than twice as high as usual, according to American spokesman Ed Martelle. By Wednesday, the airline had things under control, he said.
Travelers, many of them visibly exhausted after living at the airport for two or three days, said they were unable to get basic information from airline employees.
“I waited four hours in the queue just to speak to someone — just to get the news that I have to wait a few more days,” said Tommy Mokhtari, who was stranded at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport while trying to get home to Dubai. “They really need to have a backup plan.
Some travelers had better luck calling travel agents back home instead of dealing with airline agents standing a few feet away.

Major U.S. airlines have canceled more than 9,400 flights since Saturday. The airlines have declined to say how many passengers have been put out, but given that many holiday-week flights were sold out, an estimate of more than 1 million is not unreasonable.
Airport traffic was flowing more smoothly on Wednesday, allowing the airlines to add a few extra flights at New York-area airports. Still, it could be days before all the displaced passengers finally get where they were going. Some will not get on a flight until after New Year’s Day.
As the airlines cut call center jobs in recent years, they also eliminated flights and grounded planes to meet the reduced demand for travel during the recession. Those leaner schedules helped the airlines earn handsome profits this summer but left them with less capacity to handle the backlog of passengers stranded in New York and Philadelphia by this week’s storm.

Planes operated by Cathay Pacific and British Airways spent over seven hours on the tarmac at JFK airport on Monday night. Airport officials said the airlines had taken off for New York without first ensuring that they had a gate assignment after landing.
British Airways spokesman John Lampl acknowledged that a flight carrying 300 passengers left London on Monday night without a JFK gate assignment, but the crew didn’t think that would be a problem. “Normally a gate is available,” he said.
U.S. airlines operating domestic flights can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for tarmac delays longer than three hours, but the rule doesn’t apply to international flights or foreign airlines. Passenger-rights groups are lobbying the U.S. Transportation Department to extend the penalties to all flights to and from the U.S., but the proposal is opposed by the International Air Transport Association, which represents foreign airlines.
Samantha Henry in New York and AP Airlines writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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