Exhausted travelers are upset at airlines

Travelers at Miami International Airport are among thousands waiting Tuesday while trying to board flights that have been canceled for days due to winter weather across the United States. 

Associated Press

Travelers at Miami International Airport are among thousands waiting Tuesday while trying to board flights that have been canceled for days due to winter weather across the United States. 

Passengers 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.

Critics are incensed over what they say is the airlines' effort to blame everything on the weather and take themselves off the hook.

"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."

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.

Travelers stranded by the blizzard have been calling airlines to rebook flights in huge numbers, but the airlines have fewer reservations agents to take their calls.

For example, Continental cut 600 call-center jobs — about one-fourth of its reservations workers — in February. A few months before that, it closed a center in Florida and cut 500 jobs, and American Airlines cut a similar number when it closed a center in Connecticut. Other airlines closed call centers throughout the past decade, chopping hundreds of jobs at a time.

The airlines cut staffs because so many people now book tickets online. The airlines themselves encouraged the trend by charging customers a fee to book over the phone.

It works well most of the time. But when storms hit, hordes of airline customers can wait on hold for hours or simply be told to call back later, as happened to anyone dialing Delta, American or Continental earlier this week.

US Airways imposed mandatory overtime for customer service workers. American Airlines said it asked people to cut short vacations and extended the hours of part-time workers at call centers and airports.

"It would have been nice to have more people at the airport in the teeth of the storm, but it was difficult to get our people to the airport," said Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American.

Martelle said call volume spiked to 220 percent of normal on Monday, and however many people were at the call centers — he didn't have a figure — weren't enough. Service appeared to be working normally by Wednesday.

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 intrepid travelers had better luck calling travel agents back home instead of dealing with airline agents standing a few feet away.

As they cut call center jobs in recent years, the airlines 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.

Exhausted travelers are upset at airlines 12/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:51pm]

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