Many Americans excited to book their first travel since the start of the coronavirus pandemic have hit upon an unpleasant surprise: There are often hours-long wait times to reach an airline customer service representative.
There were quite a few news reports in June about the phenomenon of long wait times for the airlines. But the problem is by no means solved.
“Returning travelers have been shocked by hours-long hold times for airline reservation desks and support lines, forcing them to run a gauntlet of lengthy phone queues and transfers as they try to book trips using vouchers from last year’s scrapped vacations,” website The Points Guy wrote in June. In a separate issue in mid-June, a there was a booking glitch on Delta’s reservation system that prevented online books, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time. Southwest Airlines also reported a pair of system outages, also in mid-June.
The Washington Post reported in June that both Delta and American Airlines were suffering from customer service hold times lasting as long as 12 hours. Experts quoted by the Post had several reasons for the unusual delays.
There are frequent scheduling delays. There are more people than usual scheduling flights, and also seeking to apply credits from cancelled flights during the pandemic. Also, the airlines laid off or furloughed large numbers of employees during 2020, and remain understaffed, with the national shortage also contributing to the problem.
“That’s sort of creating a compounding effect because if a bag didn’t make the connection and it doesn’t arrive at your final destination, you’ve got to call the airlines,” Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, told the Post. “Everything is just kind of piling onto itself.”
“I think it is a combination of the demand recovery being steeper than anticipated … and higher numbers of travelers that have vouchers, travel certificates, and other forms of credit that may require additional assistance,” Savanthi Syth, airline analyst for Raymond James, told the newspaper. “On that second point, I believe pre-crisis, [about 5 percent] of tickets were purchased with credits and earlier this year it was 15-25%, depending on the airline.”
“The number of flyers daily in the US is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, even though business and international travel have been slow to resume,” the report said. “Airlines and airports have struggled to accommodate this influx, which has resulted in longer customer service wait times, significant flight delays, and sudden cancellations. In some cities, airport concession stands and restaurants aren’t fully staffed or open, leaving stranded travelers with fewer options for food and beverages.”
And while the major airlines are hiring people again, they can’t get back to normal overnight, since airline jobs require training. Also, many of the airlines rely heavily on subcontracted labor, adding another layer to the problem.
Most of the news stories were in the month of June, but a perusal of Twitter finds that many travelers are frustrated with the long wait times, as well as a frequent complaint that the website will tell them to call the customer service number, with the customer service number telling them to use the website.
“Hey @Delta Could you assist me with changes to my flights? Tried online first but getting errors at the final confirmation step,” one Twitter user tweeted at Delta. “Been waiting for chat support for 10 hours today and 6 hours last night. Website and emails told me to use online option as call hold times were long.”
Some well-known people have also had problems with their flights.
“So, do you people EVER answer the phone over there, @Delta?,” actor Wilson Cruz, from “Rent,” tweeted this week. “Or is speaking to a person just not an option, anymore? Literally on hold since yesterday.
Another well-known actor, Michael Ian Black, posted a screen shot to Twitter June 30, showing that he had been on hold for nearly three hours. Delta, to their credit, has responded on Twitter to many of these complaints, and not only ones shared by verified famous people.
I had a similar experience this week with Delta, trying to book a flight while applying for a credit from a canceled trip last year. First, my wife tried to book the flight, but received an error message at the last step, telling her to call customer service. Then I tried it on the website, some parts of which were completely non-functional, including a page for entering credits which refused to apply them unless I also inputted a gift card (I had no such card.)
When I attempted to call the customer service number Wednesday afternoon, I was told that the waiting time would be seven hours. When I tried again late at night, I was told it was “under two hours,” but I ultimately gave up after I was on hold for more than three. There was not, at any point, a callback option offered.
Ultimately, it turned out that the error message my wife received was itself an error, and that the flight had been booked after all. But I have no way of reaching Delta to confirm that this in fact the case.
Others, though, have had it much worse, including those who were stuck in the wrong city, in danger of missing their flight and having no way to reach the airline.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.