Delta says those long call-center hold times should improve by September

Jul 14, 2021

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Hours-long hold times have finally begun to ease at some airlines in the U.S., but at others it can still take hours on hold — or even several tries on different days — to finally get through to a call center agent.

In recent weeks, Delta has stood out as the worst performer, according to experiences shared by passengers, TPG readers and TPG staff.

Help is finally on the way, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Wednesday during a call with investors and media. But even so, things are unlikely to get back to normal before the busy summer travel season draws to a close.

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“We’ll be fully back over the next couple of months,” Bastian said. “The service levels that customers should expect and deserve, you’ll be getting that from Delta in the next couple of months.”

“And by September, we expect to get that back down to normal levels,” he added, referencing hold times.

It is not fully clear why Delta’s wait times have been so consistently worse than other carriers, although both industry insiders and the airline itself have pointed to staffing.

“Delta tends to run lean, so it’s completely different for them,” Cowen analyst Helane Becker told TPG last month about why cuts are centers might be hitting Delta harder than others.

The staffing levels were left even leaner after about half of the call center team took early retirements or buyouts during the pandemic, Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant told TPG in June.

“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.

Delta plans to hire 1,300 additional customer support agents by September, Durrant said at the time, and has rehired several hundred of the reservation specialists who took buyouts.

“We’re hiring a couple thousand people into reservations,” Bastian said on Wednesday. “We’ve already hired at least half that number.”

The issue now, which is contributing to the ongoing delays, is getting those new staffers trained and up to speed to that they can be deployed to help with calls.

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

“The challenge, as I mentioned on the call, is the training,” Bastian said. “The time it takes to get people into position.”

“It takes a few months, and the demand has come back at such a fast clip, it’s taken us all a little bit of time to catch our breath,” he added.

Still compounding the issue is the volume of callers and the complexity of issues they need help with, as travel demand continues to recover at a faster pace than was forecast.

“The volumes are beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” Bastian said. “They’re beyond the high point of 2019, and the handling times are substantially longer as people have more questions, as travel has changed their first time back.”

Latest: Airline hold times: Who’s doing best right now?

The company plans to hire 4,000 to 5,000 employees by the end of 2021, Bastian said, and has had no shortage of applicants despite the reported labor shortage.

“People look at the Delta brand as a place they want to be long-term and they see this as an opportunity to get inside,” Bastian said. “We’re very competitive in the market, we pay our people well, we take great care of them.”

Featured photo by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock.com.

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