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]

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