Tales From an Airline Reservations Agent (Guest Post)

Cranky is on a much-needed vacation and won’t be responding to emails this week. Fortunately, before I started drinking too heavily, I put some posts live. Today, we have a former reservation agent telling about life on the phone. This has nothing to do with my recent visit to Delta.

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved flying. I think I got this gene from my grandma who is one of the most traveled little old ladies I know. That’s definitely an accomplishment given that she’s an African American woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South. When I graduated college into a bad job market in 2003, I decided to wait it out in the airline industry. Here’s a view behind the scenes of my 18 months working as a Reservations call centerAgent for Delta Air Lines.

One man, many hats
Running a bunch of call centers gets expensive, so the company tries to balance keeping the agents utilized with reducing customer wait times. Every call into reservations goes into a different bucket:

  • General Sales (GS) handled regular calls
  • Skymiles handled award reservations and account-related information
  • Reissues handled changes and refunds
  • Delta Direct (DL Direct) acts like a gate agent and is whom you reach when you use the phone banks at airports
  • Special Member Services (SMS) handled our most important customers
  • International handled, of course, international reservations

Agents could also be trained to be second level support for other agents (Customer Service). On a day where Atlanta had delays, it’s possible that I would get only DL Direct and Reissues calls because that’s where the issues were. While reissues can be a one-button click affair, many times they would take 5 to 10 minutes and have to be done by hand in a sorta commandline shell.

Agents were coached that bad things would happen if we tried to do skills above our training, but given that the app was a dumb graphical user interface, it didn’t care. So if you ever called in to ticket a reservation and then asked to change a seat assignment on a Skymiles ticket and the person said they had to transfer you, that’s why. We were told when in doubt, transfer the call. I, on the other hand, would do my best to help and even on a couple occasions ticketed reservations to Canada. I properly informed the passenger about the fees but was fussed at afterwards.

Adding to the one man, many hats problem is that though DL Direct training gave me the power to waive fees, issue vouchers, and Skymiles, technically I wasn’t allowed to exercise those abilities on a non-airport call. Going by the book I would have to call Customer Service and tell them what I wanted to offer. In most cases, they would have me execute it so they could take another call.

It was kind of a bummer when someone who had a consolidator fare from Cheaptickets.com or Hotwire would call. I had to send them to the airport to change it even though they would be using a DL Direct agent anyways. There were a couple calls that I sent to the airport and took their call again on the DL Direct line. Thankfully they didn’t know it was me.

A rose by any other name…

To break up the monotony and help remember calls better, we were allowed to establish aliases. My alias for everything besides DL Direct calls was Matt Murdock from Daredevil. (I don’t care what anyone says, I think the Ben Affleck vehicle was grossly unappreciated.) Aliases also give the agent a little buffer. I could say to myself, “they aren’t yelling at me (James), they are yelling at the situation (and Matt).” Aliases were registered so if you weren’t treated well and you called back to complain, they could track it to the proper person. Who else can say that they worked with Madonna? Though that was someone’s actual given first name, not an alias.

Honesty will get you everything.

One of the policies at Delta when a person missed a flight was to charge a $25 Same Day Confirmed (SDC) fee. One day I got an airport call into my DL Direct line from a father traveling with his son. He owned up to missing the call for his flight explaining that they had arrived at the airport early and were playing in the terminal. He said he knew that it was $50 and he was okay with the charge.

Passengers that were aware of the charges and went along with them were a rare find. I can’t count the number of times people got to the airport ten minutes before departure and thought they should be reaccommodated for free. When I put this person on hold to do the SDC, I was expecting to charge him. Something told me to verify the check-in times on his record, and to my surprise, he was telling the truth.

It was plausible for the airport he was in (Atlanta I believe) that if he and his kid were playing in the concourse, he wouldn’t have heard the announcement. Though I had his ok to charge him and it was totally in my right to do so, I decided to waive the fee. It was the right thing to do and I couldn’t fault a dad for spending time with his kid.

When in doubt, take the money…

Depending on the duration of inconvenience for a given problem, we had tiers that we could offer. It was usually a certain dollar amount in a Delta travel voucher or Skymiles. They could be the same amount, 5,000 Skymiles or a $50 voucher, and people would take the Skymiles. I won’t get into whether Skymiles should be called Skypesos or not but I think people got fooled by the numbers.

Let’s make it clear, through its relationships with AMEX and other vendors, Delta gives out Skymiles like candy. At best, the airline evaluates them at a penny per mile. It’s in Delta’s best interest for you to take Skymiles because it’s a future liability that may never be realized (like if your account goes dormant and you lose the miles). Vouchers on the other hand will probably be used. Skymiles are selling the possibility of a SkySaver award, not the availability. Just as you should request cash for a voluntary bump instead of a voucher, request the voucher instead of Skymiles.

Though the pay wasn’t the best, my time at Delta gave me a chance to the world and has made my flying experience on all airlines better.

James Williams is Software Engineer based in Silicon Valley and blogs after more geeky programmer stuff over at http://jameswilliams.be/blog

[Photo via Flickr user vlima.com, CC 2.0]


20 Responses to Tales From an Airline Reservations Agent (Guest Post)

  1. pennifer says:

    Interesting post, tx! I’m interested to hear more on why this job improved your overall flying experience. Just knowing how the system works or something else?

  2. Oliver says:

    Thanks for the insights, James!

    What was your overall impression of the level of politeness (or lack thereof) of travelers?

  3. You worked there in the early 21st century so things had a more modern twist. Talk to the old timers who did the same job in decades past and it’s like a walk through history of airline travel and human nature. Both have changed and mostly for the bad.

  4. frank says:

    I survived reservations for only a couple of years. Imagine, now, you place this headset on, turn on your computer and take calls. LOTS OF CALLS all day long. I would “average” 140 calls per day.

    Circa 1982 when alot of your calls were from Travel Agencies.
    Hi, this is Betty from Triple A, pull up a record. Separate Mr Jones, Keep Ms Jones and have Mr Jones coming back on the 9th. Are you done?
    Hi, what’s your fare to LAX? $300 rt. NOTHING CHEAPER? :::click:::

    and what’s worse is that they keep statistics on YOU. Your call volume, how many PNR’s you made, they monitor your calls, etc..etc.
    I quit the job to go INFLIGHT. Face to face contact. My specialty.

    • frank says:

      This guest post had me thinking of the good ol’ days, on the phones. We had a manager who walked the floor, and would shout out how many calls were ON HOLD. When you would end one call, the next would be there. Hours and hours of this.
      well, one day, I had just finished a call and expected to hear someone complain about the wait, INSTEAD, I hear a female voice. I repeated the “airline” and my “name” and said, “Can I help you?” Suddenly, I heard what was going on….Someone was having sex, while they waited on a Res. Agent. LOL.
      We also had an (obscene) caller who called in frequenly. George, I think his name was. Always asked the female Reservation Agents, “what color panties they had on? LOL.

  5. pennifer, it improved my flying experience partly from knowing the system and part from just being able to roll with the punches.

  6. Oliver,

    Most were decently polite. Elite members (Gold and Plats) were cordial but assertive and laidback. Most of the Silvers (lowest elite level) suffered from DYKWIA.

    • IHSW says:

      This made me LOL. I only flew a lot for a couple of years, but I remember when I earned Silver on (then) NWA and was elite for the first time in my life, I will humbly admit I got all pigeon-chested about it: “DYKWIA” indeed. Anything, *anything* to make you feel like you’re somehow better than the million other people herding around like cattle in an airport.

      Ironically, by the time I moved up to other levels, and the benefits got a lot more regular and lavish, I think I became a lot more laid back and “eh, whatever” about it too.

    • JamesK says:

      You are SO right about that. One of the hats I wore when I was at Delta was a memorable three months in Dusty’s Den. Most unaccompanied minors are sweet, but you often get what I called Silver Medallions In Training. They were usually going to HSV for Space Camp and assumed they were smarter than everyone else in the country.

      Golds and Platinums (I left the airport long before Diamonds and Sky Priority appeared) were usually easier to work with, since they had seen it all before and had a pretty good idea of how the airline works. The old Flying Colonels could be a handful though–before Frequent Flyer and the Medallion system appeared, Delta would pick HVCs (the president of a local bank, for instance) to lavish attention on, regardless of how often they actually flew. To give you an idea of Delta’s Old South legacy, the Flying Colonel would get to designate his secretary as a Flying Orchid with similar benefits.

  7. Frank,

    When I did just General Sales, I would hit near that average too but once I got Reissues and Skymiles, it cut down that number. Takes forever to try and find 4 award seats to Hawaii in the summer ;)

  8. jlloyd says:

    Interesting post. Delta just started a new direct flight from SA to JFK this morning. Might make people less cranky.

  9. Embo says:

    Great post. I’ve always thought that would be a very hard job. I try to be as polite as humanly possible when calling… but I’m sure there are many people that are not!

  10. nealio says:

    Great guest post! Love the insights, especially the Elites vs silvers vs general members. I do ‘hear’ DL is trying to change call centers to more of the NWA style of enabling the agents to do many more functions in one call once they get the technology up to par.

  11. Did Res for ten years. Stared in BOS and transferred to TPA when BOS shut down. I did everything except international and DL Direct. Talked with alot of good people, most of whom were friendly. Some Hollywood folk and some military. Some of them I still talk with on a person-to-person basis even after retiring. The medalian people were the easiest to work with. Most of the time. The platinum and gold knew what they wanted and were very pleasant. The silver thought they owned the company. The most “fun” was when flights were cancelled due to weather (blizzards and/or hurricanes) and we couldn’t get people back for several days since all flights were booked solid. Once in a great while extra sections would be put on but not that often. All in all it was a fun time even with all the cut backs. Would I do it again? Maybe. I still enjoy flying and still log my flights.

  12. Dave,

    Cool, I was in TPARES too. I had a bit in a draft about the hurricanes of 2004 but had to cut it to make the post pop more. As the low man on the totem pole, I’d have to say holidays were fun if you had to work them, there was easily 4-5 minutes if not more between calls.

    • JamesK says:

      I was working in Customer Care for one of the Connection carriers at the time. Not only did I have a pax once demand that I admit that the TPARES agent she spoke to on the Delta Direct phone was actually in Bangalore, I also had several convinced that I was in India. Run up to the end of the concourse and wave through the window–I’ll wave right back.

      • If you went by James they would have thought you were in Inida, you and Betty and Bob. Now a days if a call center is really in the USA you have to use a name that is not a simply all ‘American’ sounding name so people don’t think you are in India……LOL

  13. Sean says:

    Thanks for the post about passengers.
    Just as important, how did the staff at Delta treat you and your co-workers?
    Were your supervisors helpful and supportive?

    • Sean,

      The staff was great. My team leader Chris was awesome as was our supervisor Sharon. I left as the bankruptcy situation was starting so I wasn’t subject to the current reports of the bean counters saying that agents can only check 3 itineraries before making the customer call back.

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