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More airline agents work from home and do more customer service

Elaine Baird talks to a customer on the phone as she works from her home in Odessa for Delta Airlines. Baird, who recently began handling calls from the computer desk in her laundry room as one of Delta’s at-home agents. She previously worked 15 years in reservations centers.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Elaine Baird talks to a customer on the phone as she works from her home in Odessa for Delta Airlines. Baird, who recently began handling calls from the computer desk in her laundry room as one of Delta’s at-home agents. She previously worked 15 years in reservations centers.

Elaine Baird is a top Delta Air Lines reservations agent, deftly handling 120 customer calls during her eight-hour shift. But don't picture the 15-year veteran in a sprawling call center booking ticket after ticket.

From a computer desk in the laundry room of her Odessa home, Baird is far more likely to take service calls — helping a caller navigate Delta's Web site or upgrading an elite-level flier —than sell a ticket over the phone.

The rapid shift of consumers buying airline seats over the Internet, plus a decline in travel from the recession, has dramatically changed the work life of reservations agents.

As call volume dropped in recent years, financially struggling airlines have cut reservations agents and shut reservations centers. Now more agents work from home. And they're taking on customer service tasks unimaginable less than a decade ago.

"These folks are filling the role of answer cop," says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research. "They may do (online) chat with a customers on the Web site or give information about security screening or airline policies. They're the gateway to the airline."

Nowhere are the changes more evident than in Tampa, home to three reservations centers clustered around Tampa International Airport. As soon as year's end, two will be closed.

In May, Continental Airlines laid off 100 local reservations employees and said it would shut down the building originally operated by Eastern Airlines. Nearly 600 others can transfer to the airline's remaining centers in Houston or Salt Lake City, take extended leave or a severance package.

Those that want to stay in the area can work as home-based agents and take a pay cut. Agents earning top pay will see their hourly salary drop from $19 to $15 per hour. Continental expects about 400 agents to take the offer by the time the center closes Aug. 31.

"We've had people push back (over the pay)," says Martin Hand, the airline's vice president of reservations and e-commerce. New home agents will keep the same benefits, he said. When the airline closed its Denver center in 2001, the only option for employees was a severance package.

About 380 reservations agents for Northwest Airlines, now part of Delta, also are in for changes. They start transferring this month from a center north of TIA into Delta's West Shore facility. The move will be finished by the end of this year or early 2010.

To make room, Delta is setting up about 100 current agents to work from home. They will take a $1.50-per-hour pay cut, which covers the cost of setting up their home to take calls sent over telephone lines from the center, said Perry Cantarutti, vice president for reservations.

"This is entirely voluntary," he says. "It's not about closing offices or shrinking our work force. A lot of people approached us. It helps us to retain valuable employees and gives them more opportunity to focus on the job."

Still, agents working at their homes helps the airlines, too. When big storms force carriers to cancel massive numbers of flights, home agents can jump in on short notice to reroute stranded travelers. At-home agents work more efficiently, and are less likely to change jobs.

Airlines shed thousands of agents in the last decade as online booking caught on, with the help of fees ($15 to $25) for booking over the phone with an agent. Continental employed 6,100 in call centers in 2000. Today, there are about 2,200. Southwest's reservations staff of nearly 7,000 dwindled to 2,400 though attrition and a company-wide early retirement plan.

Southwest considered consolidating some of its six reservations centers last year. But a team that included reservations managers came up with new customer-service jobs for agents to take on.

The airline added a link on its Web site for e-mail inquiries. Agents try to respond to each one within 24 hours, but no later than 48 hours, says Ellen Torbert, vice president of the renamed customer support and services department.

They also help with after-hours calls from air cargo customers and update passengers on their the status of their lost luggage. "We knew we had to reposition ourselves," says Torbert.

Delta's reservations force of about 4,300 now returns e-mail inquiries and chats online with customers on the airline's Web site, says Cantarutti. Workers also picked up phone traffic that Delta stopped sending to call centers in India this year.

"There's absolutely a future" for reservations agents, he says. "What's clear is the nature of the work is changing to high-touch, subject-matter experts."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

More airline agents work from home and do more customer service 07/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 3, 2009 4:23pm]
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