Travelers Say Airline Customer Service Failed In Blizzard

Thousands of stranded travelers who faced delays and cancellations after a storm blanketed the East Coast this week are upset over the way airlines handled the situation.

In many cases, exhausted travelers attempting to reach reservation agents were put on hold for hours, and once they finally got through were forced to deal with poor customer service.

As a result of increased online booking, airlines have been cutting call center staff in recent years. On a normal day the number of calls is manageable, but when the storm caused call volume to surge many centers did not have enough reservation agents to deal with all the requests.

In order to handle calls, US Airways imposed mandatory overtime for its customer service workers and American Airlines asked workers to cut vacations short and extended part-time workers' hours.

However, the number of workers just was not enough. United Airlines once had 17 reservation offices, but now has three, says Rich Delaney, president of the machinists' union to the Associated Press. Continental cut 600 workers--nearly one-fourth of its reservation workforce--last February, and American Airlines closed a call center in Connecticut in September 2009 where 500 representatives worked.

Due to the recession, airlines have also eliminated flights and grounded planes. These moves have been profitable to airlines, but disadvantageous when it comes to handling the backlog of stranded passengers.

"We don't blame the airlines or airports for bad weather, but it's their responsibility to be prepared," tells Brandon Macsata of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights to the Associated Press.

More than 9,400 flights have been cancelled since Saturday. Airlines have declined to say how many passengers have been impacted, but it is fair to say estimates of more than 1 million are not unreasonable.

Photo, Robert S. Donovan, flickr.
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