On a scalding Saturday earlier this month, Sienna Yang-Wenham’s car gave out on Interstate 275.
The Tampa resident was heading to the driver’s license office with her teenage son when the engine shorted, multiple lanes from the northbound shoulder. Her hazard lights would not work. Her windows would not roll down.
A jumpstart wouldn’t do the job, Yang-Wenham thought. The 2018 Toyota Highlander needed a tow.
She called AAA, the Auto Club Group, for which she bought a membership several years ago. The annual fee provides 24/7 roadside assistance, including aid with fuel delivery, towing, flat tires and more.
But Yang-Wenham never expected how long that help would take. The service fulfilled her 12:50 p.m. request near 4 p.m.
“From start to finish, it was a three-hour process,” Yang-Wenham said.
Her experience resonates with some Tampa Bay drivers who have seen unusually long AAA wait times in recent months.
As the COVID-19 pandemic tapers off, AAA calls are ramping up, and Florida traffic is returning to pre-pandemic levels, said Mark Jenkins, a spokesperson for the organization. “As a result, we are experiencing longer response times in some areas,” he wrote in an email. “In addition to higher demand, we are among the many companies addressing staffing challenges.”
Still, Yang-Wenham’s experience is not the norm, Jenkins said.
The average wait time in the region only increased by 6 minutes this month from the rolling 12-month average, he said.
To Yang-Wenham, the wait was a surprise. She said a “kind and courteous” AAA phone representative could not get ahold of a contractor or AAA fleet operator to help. The woman promised to text Yang-Wenham with an estimated time of arrival when possible.
An hour later, that message never came.
She called again and was prompted to contact the Florida Highway Patrol. In the meantime, a bystander parked behind Yang-Wenham and flashed their hazard lights. Other drivers helped push her car to the side. Her husband picked up their son, sparing him from the 93 degree heat.
A Highway Patrol trooper eventually arrived but failed to jumpstart the Highlander.
When the tow truck came, Yang-Wenham rode along to the dealership. AAA did not count the call against her annual allowances of free tows.
“AAA did everything they could to help me,” she said. “It just took forever.”
Mern Wendrow had a similar experience in Spring Hill.
A AAA member since the 1970s, he has used the service dozens of times, and in several states. Wendrow called AAA to his home in February when his car would not start. They arrived in 20 minutes. “Speedy,” he said.
Two days later, he encountered the same ignition problem in a grocery store parking lot, miles from home. He phoned in, and the AAA application allowed Wendrow to track his technician’s location.
“It said he was close by,” Wendrow said. “But he never called.”
Another driver jumpstarted his car more than an hour into the wait.
The struggle is far from universal. Some drivers report quick turnarounds. “Using it in Pasco is always SUPER FAST,” Anthony Lombardi wrote on Twitter. “Yes, I use all 6 service calls every year.”
“Had a tire blown out and they came quick and the guy delivered great service,” said Bruce Denson of St. Petersburg.
For members with tougher luck, the problem could get worse before getting better.
The July 4th holiday weekend will bring a surge of drivers. Despite the highest gas prices in seven years, more than 91 percent of holiday travel is expected to take place on roads, according to AAA projections, which is based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Markit.
An expected 2.4 million Floridians will drive to their destinations, the highest on record for the holiday, the research shows.
Jenkins, with AAA, told the Tampa Bay Times they are resolving the issue.
“We are confident the enhancements we are making to our AAA fleet and contractor operations will ensure our members get the excellent service they expect and deserve,” Jenkins wrote in an email.