Does an Airline Need a Toll-Free Phone Number?

Frontier, Spirit

Frontier is doing away with its toll-free number as part of its transition to being an ultra low cost carrier (ULCC), and when I heard the news, I didn’t think much of it. But USA Today published a story (for which I was interviewed) in its paper edition yesterday talking about it, so clearly someone thinks this is a big deal.

Long Distance Calling

As anyone who has ever flown knows, airlines have traditionally had toll-free phone numbers to call for reservations and information. Some of these have been seared into my memory since when I was an obviously dorky child.

American 800-433-7300, Delta 800-221-1212, Hawaiian 800-367-5320, Southwest 800-IFLYSWA, United 800-241-6522, though I think they promote 800-UNITED1 now, US Airways 800-428-4322….

In fact, these numbers have stuck with me so strongly that I remember phone numbers for many airlines that are long gone.

Aloha 800-367-5250, America West 800-2FLYAWA, Northwest 800-225-2525, TWA 800-221-2000….

Back in the day, a toll-free number was a necessity. If you weren’t booking through a travel agent or visiting a city ticket office, then that 800 number was pretty much the only way to book. If airlines wanted the business, they had to make it cheap to call them. Of course, long distance calling was very expensive, and we’re not talking about ancient history here.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, people were probably paying as much as 35 to 50 cents a minute to call across the country, and that’s before adjusting for inflation. An airline couldn’t survive forcing people to pay that much money just for the privilege of reserving a ticket. Toll-free numbers were needed.

Today, however, long distance isn’t even something that most individuals think about. Mobile phones generally have unlimited talk time anywhere in the US. The same goes for the shrinking number of landlines in existence. They’re often bundled with cable, internet, and yes, unlimited domestic calling.

Can you still pay for long distance as an individual? Oh you sure can. AT&T has a plan where you pay $2.99 a month and then 10 cents a minute to anywhere in the US. Does anyone actually have this plan? Or should I say, does anyone under 60 have this plan?

I can’t say I have specific data about how many people pay for long distance, but let’s think about this rationally. First, we have to remember that this only an issue for people who are flying. If you’re thinking about the elderly who are on subsidized phone service, they probably aren’t buying plane tickets. In that group of people who are actually buying tickets, we can first eliminate those who book online or at the airport and don’t need further phone assistance. Then we can eliminate those who book through travel agents, online or off. Lastly we can eliminate those people who don’t pay for long distance. What’s left? It can’t be all that much.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that ULCCs would be the first to try to cut their 800 numbers since they’re the ones looking to keep costs as low as possible. Frontier alone says it will save nearly $2 million a year by cutting the toll-free number. That seems like a smart move.

Allegiant (702-505-8888) has chosen a number from its hometown. Spirit (801-401-2220) and Frontier (801-401-9000), however, have gone a sleezier route. They’ve chosen the Utah area code of 801, which is suspiciously close to an 800 number. It’s also located in a state where Spirit doesn’t even fly (but Frontier does). Why bother with this little game? Well, I suppose it could trick a couple of senile old folks who pay for long distance into believing it’s a free call, which would be pretty terrible. Most likely, however, it’s probably an effort to trick people into thinking it’s toll-free so they don’t think less of the airline. Perception is important.

While perception really is an issue to consider, it’s not a problem for ULCCs. As I said in the USA Today article, “they want to seem cheap. That’s their message. ‘We have low costs and that lets us offer low fares.'” If United tried this, there might be more pushback. It does sound cheap, and despite their best efforts, traditional carriers don’t want to come off that way. While I doubt we’ll see legacy carriers ditch their 800 numbers anytime soon, they would be wise to start providing local numbers more… which brings me back to the beginning of this post.

I’ve memorized all those 800 numbers, and I call them when needed. Is there a reason I don’t call a local number when I call United? There isn’t. I just don’t know that it exists. Every airline should at least do a better job of talking about local phone numbers today. That could help bring costs down without even ditching the toll free number. But for ULCCs? It shouldn’t matter. And in a few more years, none of this will matter at all.

What do you think?

[Original nurse photo via Shutterstock]

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53 comments on “Does an Airline Need a Toll-Free Phone Number?

  1. There’s a somewhat apt comparison: 407-WDISNEY.

    I agree that the real question is what this change will do to perception. The more-positive possibility is “These guys are really focused on keeping costs down.” The worse possibility is “These guys don’t even pretend to be minimally courteous toward their customers.”

    I suspect that the former is closer to the truth. However, my initial gut reaction is closer to the latter. And I suspect that the sort of people who pick up the phone to make airline reservations are even more likely to think it’s an example of airline contempt toward customers.

    1. My first thought was the 407-WDISNEY number. That has been in existence for years and people are clearly still going to Disney properties.

      1. That was my first thought too – Disney’s had that as their reservation/information number for years, even back when most people had to pay for long distance, and it made sense, since (at least before the Internet) if your kids wanted to go to Disney, you had to call them. You just didn’t have a choice, unless you like whiney, petulant children. (Or whiney, petulant adult Disney fans, for that matter.)

        Still does make sense, even though very few people pay for long distance any more.

  2. I think it’s an American thing. No airline in Europe I know of has a toll-free number. KLM’s Dutch number is the only one I know by heart: 020-4 747 747 (guess it’s clear why it’s that easy ;) ). Since most bookings are done online and you really only need to talk to an airline when problems occur, it doesn’t really matter for the passenger.

    For the airline, a 2 million dollar savings sounds like a great deal. Give it a couple of years and all airlines will have eliminated the toll-free option. Just like with bags included, food included, etc.: it’s the low cost airlines that do it first, the rest will follow soon.

    1. I’m sure that it *is* an American thing, but the vast majority of people booking Frontier are Americans. So it seems reasonable to interpret their action in light of typical American business practices. In this country, almost all businesses that face the public have toll-free phone numbers. A business that doesn’t have one is definitely making some sort of statement.

    2. “…you only really need to talk to an airline when there is a problem…”

      That’s just it. Unless I’m completely out to lunch, you can guarantee there will be a problem with Frontier, Allegiant and for sure Spirit. And not a little one….like a flight cancelled with no rebooking option for two or three days or even a week.

  3. I’m honestly surprised it took this long. Payphones were removed from most airports many years ago, and as Cranky points out, few people under the age of, say, 40 or 50 even have a landline these days, unless it’s the unwanted part of a phone/TV/internet bundle or they live in an area with poor cell coverage.

    I graduated college in 2009, and my last three years I didn’t even bother with the 30 minutes it would have taken me to set up the landline phone in my dorm room, even though it was free- it simply wasn’t worth the effort. I know of no one in their 20s or 30s who has a landline these days.

    As for cellphone minutes… Even for those who don’t have unlimited minutes, who really uses exactly all their minutes each month? Not a ton of people, and those who do typically bump themselves up to a higher plan quickly.

  4. Changing to local numbers could be a perception win, not just looking cheap. Get a few local numbers. Delta could get a 212 number and advertise it in New York, “your hometown airline.” After all, Newark ain’t 212. Get a local number for Los Angeles too. American or United could do that in Los Angeles and Chicago. Where there’s a competitive hub it may make sense. Where there’s a monopoly hub, too.

    Airlines could promote this by cutting the telephone booking fee in half for a limited time when using their local number. And promote it as a service to their local community. Or something.

    This doesn’t have to look cheap, and customers will get used to it.

    1. I really love this idea. Sounds like marketing genius to me actually. Like I’m already envisioning billboards with the area codes in large numbers on the tail of the advertising airline. Strong work.

  5. When I was in college I’d go to Wal-Mart to get prepaid phone cards as that was the cheapest way to call home. I want to say it wasn’t that long ago but my 20 year high school reunion in on the doorstep so in the technology arena I guess it was generations ago. Personally I don’t care about the 800 number but it’s hard to change those if people have them memorized. What I think is the bigger story here is what telecommunications has done to the business world and how it impacts specifically air travel. In 2009 my travel was cut drastically and teleconference, Go To Meeting, Skype, etc. filled the gaps. Since the economy has improved we didn’t quit using those resources, in fact it’s grown exponentially since then and travel has only grown slightly.

    I’ve talked to business owners that had huge difficulty going “national” in the 1980’s because the telephone bills were tens of thousands each month. Often it was cheaper to fly out and have your meetings. Today the need for in-person meetings & deal making still exists but a lot of the coordination can get done via other means, i.e. cheap telecommunications. I’ve seen in quite a bit in my 15 year working career. All bad news if I want to get to the next status level in the FF program, but amazing how widespread the impact is.

  6. Actually I believe 801 is the area code of the location where the company that handles Spirit’s reservations call centers has a huge call center and has its US telecom systems. Calls may get routed to Philippines call centers for many calls, but some are answered there in 801.

  7. ……and how about lightning up on the “dump on over-60s” mindset…..
    There are lots of us who fly our hienies off, phone as much as anyone, and are cognizent of various phone rates…

    You need to cultivate relationships with Boomers; we’ve got the money…:)

    1. Robert – Who is dumping on people over 60? This is just the way it is. When people in their 20s are over 60, they’ll have habits that seem archaic to 20 year-olds at that time. People are creatures of habit. It’s just the way of the world and it’s not a negative.

  8. How funny you end with airlines should have a local number, which is exactly how it used to be. Every city they flew too had a local number. Even after Toll Free numbers came out, it was still cheaper in some areas to still publish the local phone number in the yellow pages, then have the 800 number. Are we now going to go full circle and go back to local number?

    The two million Frontier says they will save isn’t a lot in the business world, but sure seems like a small amount to pay for passengers to be able to call. The real is Frontier knows by changing its business plan the only people who will be calling in mass will be passengers to complain about Frontier. So by using only a local number it will cut back on people making a long distance call just to complain. People don’t mind complaining if it doesn’t cost them anything, but to pay a long distance charge and be on hold for a long time still paying the phone company, will keep complain calls down.

  9. If the the ULCC’s were doing this right they’d be getting paid for the inbound calls, and no I’m no talking about a 1-900 number.

    They’d pick some crazy rural number and join forces with the carrier there for a kickback of the high interchange rates. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc hate this.

    For some more details, look at Traffic pumping: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_pumping

    I guess the ULCC’s are just leaving some space for the SULCCs to shave a bit of money. (Super-Ultra Low Cost Carriers.)

    1. EasyJet (and probably Ryanair) used to (and probably still does) have a 900-type number where you pay per minute to call their customer service number. It would actually be an interesting idea: Get rid of the telephone booking fee but charge for calls via a 900 number. But probably too many people have 900 blocking and would be a huge mess when there’s a system meltdown that means lots of people are calling.

        1. Don’t worry, you can then spend more money sitting on hold while you wait for the supervisor you requested to get on the line so that they can maybe reimburse your fees for being on hold too long… And on and on.

    2. If the ULCC wanted to be real scummy, they could get a number in the Caribbean (809/868/869/876 are Caribbean area codes) and cram on extra charges beyond the reach of US consumer protection laws.

  10. Regarding 801, I doubt there is an 801 looks like 800 issue here… I recall reading fairly recently (last couple of years) that there was a movement of call centers to Utah since they can staff them with reasonably dependable, reasonably well educated Mormon housewives who can do that job to pick up some extra income.

    I too have no data, but my suspicion would be there would be a higher incidence of unsophisticated travelers who would be taking low fare airlines who would benefit from the toll free numbers. It just seems that the Venn diagram would set up that way, but maybe internet penetration is enough that they won’t lose business.

    As a platinum, I will be quite irritated if United removes the elite line (800 #) that I am used to calling and where I get someone that speaks proper american English. Where you do need that is if there are irrops, you can pick up any phone and get the number. Business lines still do come with long distance charges, or restrictions on long distance.

    1. Totally agree. We were stuck in Europe after United cancelled a flight without notifying us before we showed up at the airport (it had cancelled 15 hours prior when the aircraft broke down in the States and was unable to make the trip to Germany). I called the Premier number and was re-booked within 10 minutes by a US-based agent.

  11. I still have a landline, because it’s needed for the house alarm. Unfortunately, it still has a long distance plan that costs money. I do miss the olden days where AT&T and MCI handed out gazillion miles for switching long distance service.

    Also, there was a Friends episode where Phoebe dialed an 801 area code phone number instead of 800 number, and she was on hold the entire episode.

  12. It doesn’t bother me that an airline might do away with their 800 number since I rarely call them. Some airlines actually charge more for tickets – perhaps it’s in an add-on fee – when you call instead of book online.
    Those times I’ve called usually lasted a LONG time however since you often have to wait for an agent to come on the line. If I had their non-800 number, I could use that when needed as I have unlimited domestic – and I think Canada and Mexico – calling included in my plan.

  13. I wonder why any business has a toll free number anymore. Cranky – 800 4 AIR CAL … can’t get it out of my head. And the first America West number 800 247 5692 – pre vanity number.

  14. I’m always blown away how few people use Lucy Phone. You call, get in the hold queue, then basically end the call. The CSR representative will then pick up hit like *# or something, and the phone will call you. Easy as pie, and free to the consumer. No charges for hold queues. I’ve only seen the worst of the worst companies fail to use it properly (not airlines).

    1. Its funny you mention this, as the only people I ever see use those systems, ironically, are government agencies! Mostly I imagine because many are understaffed vis a vis the amount, length, and complexity of calls (the IRS is an example of that).

      1. The folks of the IRS etc do that because its a huge cost savings.

        Virtual queuing saves a good deal of money for the companies as they don’t have to pay for the long distance.. LucyPhone on the other hand is a different story.

    2. Thats quite cool.

      And they offer it for free since they’re getting a nice bit of change in commissions from all of the toll free traffic they send someone.

  15. Actually I think it’s a great idea. Most everyone has a telephone plan (landlines and cell phones) that have unlimited calling. How many millions of people over the years have called airlines and did not make a reservation ? = $millions of dollars for the airlines to pay to the telephone companies.

    1. Chris – Interesting that 800 BRITISH is actually a phone number for Open Skies now, the BA subsidiary that doesn’t even fly to Britain. The number BA pushes out is 800 AIRWAYS now.

  16. The main time I care that airline numbers are toll free is when I’m out of the country. Then, I use Skype, and Skype calls to toll free US numbers are free. I’m not aware of a way to call normal long distance numbers for free from out of North America. (My cell phone is T-Mobile, so calls from Canada and Mexico are now included along with calls from the US.) And when I need to call an airline from abroad, it’s usually because something has gone wrong with my flights, so it can’t wait.

    Since toll free numbers often don’t exist in foreign countries (and I often don’t have access to a phone that can call even toll free numbers for free while traveling), that’s a significant plus, but presumably less important for the mostly-domestic low cost carriers than for carriers with worldwide route networks.

    The Skype option to a toll free number is also good when I’m somewhere with no cell service, which includes my office deep in a concrete building.

  17. I think DL has/had a 404 (Atlanta area) number for reservations (in addition to toll-free). Not sure if it is still around however.

    1. Most of the big airlines used to have local numbers in most big cities. At that time, it was cheaper to “trunk” a local number to the reservation center than to pay the expensive rates for toll free. Also, local dialing was only seven digits back then. All of this was before the deregulation/split of AT&T. After deregulation and the advent of “start up” long distance companies like MCI (how long has it been since I thought of them), Sprint, and a few others, toll free rates came down dramatically. Also, new inovations in switching technology allowed a lot more information to be collected by the airline when someone called an 800 number. Lastly, “trunking” local numbers became very expensive. So, Delta, Eastern, TWA, and most carriers did away with local numbers and migrated everyone to the toll free numbers. I remember the first time I called the Atlanta number and got a recording referring me to 800-221-1212. I did not like having to dial 10 digits instead of seven.

    1. Oliver – For small businesses, the costs are tiny. We just work through RingCentral, and as much as I dislike a lot of the service we get from them, the costs are nothing.

  18. I think I can provide some additional insight into this question because:
    1. I design call centers (to include reservations centers) for a living
    2. I am a 1K flyer with United and use their 800 number extensively
    3. From 1986 until 2002 I help support United Airline’s reservation call centers.

    There are a variety of reason why companies (airlines) use 800 numbers.

    Some are customer facing.

    For example it is much easier to get a vanity 800 number (think ” 1800 I fly swa” ) than if you had to deal with a local utility. Studies have shown that it is much easier to remember a number like that than a full 10 digit number.

    Another example is if you are calling from a hotel room NOT using your cell phone the hotel most likely will bill you a fairly healthy surcharge for local and long distance calls but most times does not charge for 800 numbers.

    Other reasons have to do with the significant amount of data you can acquire about your callers as well as responses to marketing initiatives.

    Once you can segment your callers or call types, you can prioritize how you want to handle them to maximize revenue and/or customer service. That is why 1K’s get a much quicker lever of service and more highly trained agents (usually :) )

    You can also add codes to specific 800 numbers so you track if the response is from a marketing ad placed in a magazine, newspaper or TV.

    These types of advanced services do not exist in non-800 services.

    Most large users of 800 service (such as airlines) also get very discounted rates from the carriers so it is not costing them that much for the 800 numbers.

    IMHO Frontier is cutting off it’s nose to spite it’s face.

    They are saving what (for the airline) is pennies (compared to fuel, aircraft, crews, etc) at the expense of ease of customer use and the ability track marketing initiatives. I think in the end this will cost them more and given the choice I think most people would much rather call an 800 number.

  19. All this talk on local numbers made me think, so I looked in the three different yellow pages that land on my doorstep. Two had nothing listed un ‘AIRLINES’ except a local travel agent, but the third had a long list of airlines. Aer Lingus had a 516 number, Allegiant-702, China Southern-323 (Los Angeles) and the rest had 800/866/877/888 which I believe are all toll free numbers.

    From my TWA days any local number went to one of the reservation offices assigned to that area first, then over flowed to another office when lines were full. In fact calls from the San Francisco area went to the STL office first since it was cheaper to route calls to the midwest then to the L.A. office. Same for south Florida, those calls were cheaper to route to L.A. then to the midwest after the NY office closed for the day. So I’m sure with todays techie phone systems anything is possible to save the airline money, but still make people happy who want to call a human.

  20. What’s a phone? What’s long distance?

    Can you use a phone that doesn’t have a browser to reserve airline tickets?

    :D

  21. You are correct, – Sort Of. Before spouting like that again, you ought to have a talk with the Telecom consultant that helps you manage your own communications needs. In 1983 or 1984, the late Judge Green (Greene?) turned the communications industry on its head and it still has not settled. The ‘800’ number routine is but one of many options and most consumers know the difference. If you wish to write on a topic about which you do not know much, please check with your experts. There is a LOT more involved… -C.

  22. The 800 number also was a sales tool. I still remember the Sheraton Hotel jingle 800-325-3535. That day seems to have passed, altho many who find the Airport Administration Office phone number complain about Allegiant having a toll number and never answering the phone. These of course are leisure travelers who are not computer literate or perhaps a bit lazy.

    1. Drybean – YES. I have had that 800-325-3535 jingle in my head for years.
      Talk about an effective campaign. Though I’ve always grouped that in my mind with both Delta (800-221-1212 regular, 800-323-2323 SkyMiles) and Northwest (800-225-2525).

  23. I am completely fine with this arrangement. In fact I like it a lot, everyone (almost) has unlimited domestic calling so what’s the point?

    I do especially agree with the idea that airlines should publish their local numbers more often, especially for those of us traveling internationally. I’ve been to Europe on United and Delta and made sure I had both their numbers, since you can’t dial 800s from Europe.

  24. Vanity numbers still serve a great purpose for reasons that you alluded to. First and foremost, the recognition factor is a benefit for the company. Second, it brings a certain credibility and official look to the company.

  25. I love the fact that I can be anywhere in the world using an app that allows me to make this type of calls or like in the case the banks where you do not know if they will keep you on hold for ours, this is a great option.

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