Friday, December 31, 2010

Notional Customer Service

As Snowgate - triggered by days of storms that shut down airports in Britain and western Europe, Russia and the eastern and central United States - continues to unfold, one thing is massively clear: Airlines and airports were unprepared for extreme weather, although extreme weather is not uncommon. Beyond that, airline tenants at stricken airports couldn't even come close to addressing the needs of stranded passengers - customer service was purely notional.

Layoffs and service cutbacks underlay the latest crisis, at least in the U.S., as explained in a helpful backgrounder from the Associated Press, which I read in the Washington Post. It reads in part:

"Travelers calling to rebook flights earlier this week in huge numbers were put on hold for hours or told to call back later because the major airlines have fewer reservations agents to take their calls.

"For example, Continental cut 600 call-center jobs - nearly one-fourth of its 2,600 reservations workers - in February. A few months before that, it closed a center in Florida and cut 500 jobs. American Airlines cut about 500 when it closed its center in Connecticut.

"United Airlines has 10,000 customer-service and reservations employees, down from about 15,000 in the early 2000s, according to Rich Delaney, president of the machinists' union, which represents the workers. United once had 17 reservations offices; it now has three, he said.''

There's more, as explained by the AP and published in the Post:

"The airlines cut staff because so many people now book tickets online. The airlines themselves encouraged the trend by charging customers a fee to book over the phone.''

Finally, reports David Koenig, the AP's lead writer on the piece:

"As the airlines cut call center jobs in recent years, they also eliminated flights and grounded planes to meet the reduced demand for travel during the recession. Those leaner schedules helped the airlines earn handsome profits this summer but left them with less capacity to handle the backlog of passengers stranded in New York and Philadelphia by this week's storm.''

According to media reports, U.S. carriers cancelled nearly 10,000 flights from Dec. 25 through Dec. 28, grounding an estimated 1 million travelers - just in the United States.

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