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The 9-hour wait: Here's why airline hold times are so bad

June 18, 2021
13 min read
Airline call center phone airplane
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The travel comeback is in full swing, but with it has come a major headache for many airline customers.

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.

It's been an even tougher slog for those on newly booked trips marred by weather-related cancellations or last-minute schedule changes. Numerous flyers have complained about trying for days to reach an agent for rescheduling assistance, only to find they're unable to get through at all.

There's been much enthusiasm about the sudden resurgence of travel. But, for people in need of real-time help with a flight itinerary, it's been a mixed bag.

More recently, air travelers' struggles for live help have been further compounded by computer meltdowns at several major airlines, which have only added to the queues for rebooking help and exacerbated an already tenuous situation at some airlines. And that's without the risk of summertime thunderstorms that can add to the mess.

Without a significant improvement, it could be a miserable summer to fly.

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Dialing up a perfect storm

How did we get to this phone-queue purgatory?

As vaccination rates increased and travel demand began to surge, the problem of long hold times initially appeared to be tied to an abundance of vouchers from canceled trips in 2020.

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An earlier TPG analysis found that the big four airlines — American, Delta, United and Southwest — issued roughly 21.5 million vouchers and credits in 2020, worth a combined $10.4 billion. In April, United chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella said that about 12% of new tickets were being booked using vouchers.

But the problem of getting a live agent on the phone only worsened this spring, coinciding with the accelerating vaccine rollout among the public and broader optimism over case rates and reopenings.

Experts say the call center apocalypse is the combined result of reduced staffing, computer issues, flyers trying to cash in vouchers and credits for flights canceled during the pandemic and travelers taking unusually long on calls because they have questions about COVID-19 testing.

"The hold times are awful, but it's not completely clear why," said Brett Snyder, author of The Cranky Flier website that's devoted to aviation news. "I think it's a mix of things."

Overall, it was the confluence of staffing cuts and post-pandemic booking trends that appeared to catch some carriers flatfooted. Although most carriers allow customers to redeem credits online, the rules and policies surrounding credits can be confusing. Some airlines even issue different types of stored value depending on the original ticket — American, for instance, issues both "flight credits" and "vouchers," while United issues "travel certificates" and "future flight credits" — making calls to redeem them even more complicated for both customers and agents alike.

Confusion among customers about how to redeem vouchers and credits, along with bugs and difficulty using certain functions online, added to a surge in calls that quickly swamped many airlines. In addition to the spike in the volume of calls, other wrinkles — such as flyers seeking to combine value from multiple credits — also made many calls longer as agents tried to sort through complicated and time-consuming requests.

The wait-time experience varies by airline

TPG's team of reporters and editors tested out wait times all of the past week with various airlines and found some really short waits and some unexpectantly high waits. There was no pattern to the results, though some carriers have fared worse than others.

Other airlines, however, have been successful at trimming wait times. Since TPG began reporting on the issue of extended hold times in March, United appears to have significantly improved its call center operations. While numerous passengers told TPG that they have experienced hold times of up to 30 minutes in recent weeks, that seemed to be the worst of it, with a few exceptions during busy periods — and elite members usually wait just a few minutes, if that.

American Airlines, on the other hand, has been hit and miss in recent weeks, according to customers who spoke with TPG, and tests by the TPG team. TPG has received few complaints about Southwest, though Snyder says long call times were an issue this week following two computer glitches in 24 hours.

"Delta is the one that really stands out," Snyder said about the airline that seems to be having the most trouble.

Snyder, who also runs the Cranky Concierge travel service, said he had one client who said he called Delta and was initially quoted a callback time of 34 hours. He hung up and called again later, this time getting a nine-hour callback window.

And numerous passengers have approached TPG with stories of extended hold times and — in some cases — a virtual inability to reach Delta Air Lines.

One Delta customer, who did not give permission to include his name, told TPG he was advised to change his ticket online, but received an error message saying his ticket wasn't eligible to be changed. He then called the airline and was quoted a wait time of nearly nine hours. He called back later and was disconnected after spending two hours and 46 minutes on hold.

From June 2020: Having trouble getting through to Delta? You’re not alone

He also tried texting the airline through a new messaging feature while calling back a third time. After holding for over three hours, he was able to change his flight — and he noted that the agent who helped him was fantastic, friendly and apologetic for the wait.

Gary Wyatt tried to use Delta's callback feature when he was cited a hold time of about 90 minutes. He received the callback more than two hours later, he said, and then had to wait on hold for another 20 minutes until an agent became available.

Another Delta customer, David Guenthner, needed to contact Delta Vacations, which has a separate call center department. He said it took him nearly two weeks of trying to call back before he was able to get in touch with someone.

(Screenshot from David Slotnick/The Points Guy)

The account is consistent with this reporter’s personal experience. Calling the Delta Vacations line simply returns a busy signal on most weekdays, and has an indefinite hold time during weekends. To date, this reporter has been unable to reach the vacation desk.

Guenthner, a Platinum Medallion member, also said he's had trouble reaching the regular airline's Platinum desk. He's been quoted wait times of three hours but held for six, and has received callbacks — but then had to wait on hold for more than an hour.

It's unclear why Delta's wait times have been so consistently worse than other carriers, though several industry insiders pointed to staffing.

"Delta tends to run lean, so it’s completely different for them," said Cowen analyst Helane Becker.

The airline has faced broader staffing issues since cuts from the beginning of the pandemic, and has said it is now working to staff up across multiple work groups — including its reservations team.

To Delta's credit, the airline acknowledges the problem and the severity — a rarity for a major company, as anyone who works in the world of corporate communications knows.

"First, Delta apologizes to all of our customers who have encountered a long hold or callback time when seeking to speak with us about their travel," airline spokesperson Morgan Durrant told TPG. "We empathize with their frustration and that’s why we continue to take action."

The issue, Durrant said, essentially boils down to the pace of demand recovery versus the speed at which the airline can hire new employees to rebuild its ranks.

"While the increase in bookings is great news for Delta, the welcomed customer volume has outpaced staffing that was left diminished by 50% when our people took voluntary early retirement or separation packages to help Delta get through the many pandemic-driven challenges in 2020," he said.

To improve hold times and meet the increased demand, both in the near term and further in the future, the airline is working to hire 1,300 customer support agents by September, Durrant said.

Related: The best credit cards that offer trip cancellation and interruption insurance

The airline has also rehired 200 of those reservations specialists who took buyouts as contractors to help improve performance more immediately. The airline will also partner with a "trusted travel agency partner," Durrant said, which will help handle the influx of customers through the airline's text messaging service.

In an appearance on "Good Morning America" this week, CEO Ed Bastian said that call volumes are up 40% over 2019 levels and reiterated that the airline is working to improve hold times.

"Our team's doing a great job of bringing a lot of resources in. I suspect in the next two to four weeks we'll be back to normal levels of handling times," Bastian said.

Notably, the airline previously operated its own in-house temporary staffing agency, Delta Global Staffing, under its DAL Global Services subsidiary. Delta sold DAL Global Services in late 2018 and dissolved the staffing agency. It was not clear whether the airline was previously reliant on DAL Global Services to staff call centers during peak periods, or whether the sale had any impact on the current situation.

Delta also recently added the ability to make same-day flight changes within its app, allowing passengers to handle changes and emergencies without calling.

And most other carriers appear to be trending in the right direction.

At American, an AAdvantage Executive Platinum member on the TPG team has been able to connect to an agent with wait times ranging from just 50 seconds to eight minutes, while non-elite members of the team have had waits as low as five minutes.

On other occasions, though, American's call centers have been bogged down with delays.

A call from a TPG staffer late Tuesday evening resulted in a hold time of up to three hours on the airline's Platinum elite line.

Another example was relayed to TPG by an American Airlines customer who does not have status with American and who asked TPG to withhold their name. They tried to take advantage of the airline's callback feature but found it to be ineffective.

In one instance, the passenger called American at about 4:50 p.m. and requested a callback. The airline attempted the callback three times, all overnight — twice at around 12:40 a.m., and again at 1 a.m. The customer shared screenshots of their outgoing and incoming call records with TPG.

That same passenger called the airline again the following afternoon at 5 p.m. They received two callbacks, again overnight — one at 3:27 a.m., and another about 10 minutes later. They tried a third time, but received a message saying the callback system was down for maintenance.

(Screenshot provided to TPG)

According to representatives for American, the inconsistency has largely been caused by weather and other disruptions to flight operations — known colloquially in the industry as "irrops" for "irregular operations" — which have caused a surge in callers needing to be accommodated due to delays or missed connections.

"We’re currently experiencing some hold times that are longer than we would like as customers make plans to return to travel," a spokesperson for the airline told TPG. "We’re excited to see demand come back, and are hiring hundreds of reservations agents to support our customers."

Beyond that, the airline said it's continuing to expand its new callback feature, which allows customers to select a time to receive their callback.

In the particular example above, there was what an American spokesperson characterized as a perfect storm.

A "minor technical issue" resulted in the callback feature needing to be shut down for a day. While callbacks are normally stopped at 11:59 p.m. CT, the airline decided to remove the deadline to try and work through a backlog caused by the earlier shutdown.

Overall, though, customers should know their experience will vary — especially by airline.

"It's bad for some," Snyder said, "and not for others."

How to manage long airline hold times

For now, regardless of which airline you're flying, there are a few steps to follow to try and avoid headaches.

Naturally, leave as much time as possible. Call in advance when you can — and be prepared for a bit of a wait.

"Use an alternate channel," said Snyder, singling out social media as one such option. "Getting through to reservations is going to be a challenge. I always suggest going to Twitter."

Related: How to quickly reach an airline customer service agent

If you're at the airport and need to get in touch with someone, try going to your airline's lounge. Customer support specialists there can often help with any same-day issues and, if not, can sometimes offer a direct airport line that can get you in touch with reservations without having to wait in the full queue.

Elsewhere, some travelers have had luck with premium travel agents or their credit card concierges who have other ways to access the airlines' systems.

Additional options that have worked for some frequent flyers include:

  • Call an international reservations office number
  • Try an airline's Spanish-language line
  • Utilize the airline’s call back option
  • Use the elite help number if you have status
  • Call at an off-peak time such as early morning or late at night

Above all else, be patient. When you finally do get through to someone, that reservations agent is likely dealing with an increased workload and a succession of upset customers, and is likely just as frustrated as you.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.