The Telephone Game

By | September 5, 2006

In a recent article entitled, 1-800-I-am-truly-fed-up, the LA Times addressed the issues of airline call center outsourcing. We were inspired to address it ourselves.

When calling any company, airline or not now, you are brought through a menu of options, or an Interactive Voice Response system(IVR) designed to automate your experence and eliminate the need for an agent.

This means, many passengers before even getting to an agent are frustrated trying to navigate these systems. Then, when you finally get to an agent, your experience may not be any easier. We refuse to blame this on outsourcing specifically. Airlines are just as capable of demanding high quality standards from their employees or subcontractors abroad as they are in the United States. However, agents who have not experienced the way travel is in the US lack certain knowledge that would assist them in aiding customers.

Common complaints are that they are unfamilar with geography, airline policies, routes, can’t handle complex questions, and often refuse to transfer callers to a U.S. based operator. We recall a story in which an agent from Delta’s Bombay Reservations Division advised a passenger with a week’s vacation who wanted to fly from New York to Florida, Florida to California, then back to New York that this was not possible and suggested they drive.

A 2005 Cornell University study of Indian Call Centers found that employees had little or no power to make decisions. About 41% relied on scripts, and more than 50% had less than one year of experience. But there are undertrained employees everywhere.

USAirways recently spent two million dollars to bring back about 350 U.S. agents, although 60% of its calls are still handled by centers in the Phillipines, Mexico, and El Savador. Delta, contrastly, after dropping one of its three Indian call centers for poor peformance, replaced it with another Indian firm. They are trying to improve conversation skills and get the agents to be less formal. Delta also has call centers in Jamaica and Lithuania.

Outsourced or not outsourced, we recommend you double check any document sent to you by an airline after speaking to one of their agents or even booking on their website. When speaking to an agent, try to use your knowledge to ask question they don’t know to ask. If your price quote is too high and you want to check alternate options, ask specifically about rates routing through a specific city or hub. Suggest alternate gateways. Do not assume the spelling of your name is obvious and ask them if they would like you to spell it for them. Make sure before you commit, that the information is correct. If you are told a concern of yours will not be a problem, ask them to document the record that they advised you of that. If their information turns out to be incorrect, having that in the record can help should you ask a company to stand by their employee.

Most of these tips will work for any organization. Do your research in advance. And if you feel the need to call, remember to be prepared.

To help you in calling these organizations, the Freakonomics Blog recently recommended in addition to Get Human, a site that indexes tricks to get an agent for various organizations, a new site, currently in beta at called Bringo!. As a free service, they’ll dial the computer, navigate their site, and call your number when they’ve got you waiting to speak to an agent.

We wish you all the luck in succeeding in your customer service experience. And if you want to tell us about a situation or story you had, so we can write about it and perhaps aid other people in similar situations, feel free to email us at or comment on this entry.

Update(6/09): NoPhoneTrees no longer seems to offer this service.

Author: Guru

Guru is the Editor of Flight Wisdom and a long time aviation enthusiast.