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1-800- I-am- truly- fed-up
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1-800- I-am- truly- fed-up
Outsourcing overseas saves carriers money, but unhappy fliers say there's a disconnect.
By Laurie Berger, Special to The Times
September 3, 2006

PITY the poor passengers who must phone airlines to do anything these days change a reservation, redeem vouchers, get an upgrade or track lost bags.

It can take seemingly forever to get a live agent. If you do, the agents are a world away, in Jamaica, India, the Philippines and Lithuania. And these operators in overseas call centers, airlines acknowledge, are sometimes ill-equipped to meet the demands of harried U.S. travelers.

Catherine Rogers of Madison, Wis., was in tears recently trying to rebook a delayed flight through a United Airlines reservations agent in India. She asked about different routings and options, even a refund, but the operator offered none.

"He didn't have any authority to make decisions," Rogers said. "He just kept saying 'Sorry' and putting me on hold."

Richard Gamberg of Hawaii, another unhappy flier whose call was routed to India, spent 20 minutes trying unsuccessfully to book an award seat. Once in touch with a U.S. agent, he said, the deed was done in four minutes.

"They're nice and polite but take too long and have the wrong information," said Gamberg, a 100,000-mile-a-year flier. "They never lose their cool, but they made me lose mine."

Cash-strapped airlines have followed computer firms, banks and credit-card companies to Asia, Latin America and other areas where it's less expensive to run customer-service centers.

US Airways and bankrupt United and Delta now send at least half of their U.S.-based callers overseas. (American, Continental, Northwest and Southwest still answer phones in the U.S. using on-site and home-based agents.)

The troubled carriers' best customers upper-elite frequent fliers and international passengers get directed to "cream-of-the-crop" U.S. agents. Pretty much everyone else is sent to the airline equivalent of Siberia, in terms of customer service. Carriers say routing calls to distant lands saves an average of 20% to 50% a year and keeps fares low.

But experts contend that airlines have forgotten the customer. "You'd be surprised how many decisions like this are made simply on cost," said Keith Dawson, editorial director of Call Center Magazine, an industry publication.

And complaints are increasing as this summer's weather, air traffic and security delays drive more travelers to the phones and to operators in distant lands.

"Airlines have reduced the number of people answering calls, and that means more errors, particularly when there's bad weather like we've seen this summer," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

One popular online forum, , has logged thousands of posts on the topic. Many say that overseas agents don't know local geography, airline policies or carriers' routes; can't handle complex questions; and often refuse to transfer callers to a U.S.-based operator.

Jeri Bowden of McLean, Va., for one, said she spent eight lunch hours trying to redeem a paper upgrade through several India-based agents she couldn't understand.

"I kept asking for someone who spoke English without an accent," said Bowden, who registered her gripe on , a United complaint site. "I would have screamed, but I was at work."

Experts say the frustration is understandable. It's hard for Americans to "get past the clipped British accent" of Indian agents, said Virginia Mann, a UC Irvine speech scientist.

"Travelers are already under stress when they call," she said. "When they can't communicate with the person who's supposed to be helping them, they explode."

Some call center experts blame it on poor training.

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.

"On average, U.S. call centers take less time to answer calls and answer them correctly without escalating them to a supervisor," said David Butler, executive director of the National Assn. of Call Centers.



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