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Airline call centers stand test of time

| Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Over the days following Christmas, massive storms lashed the Midwest and South, snarling the plans of millions of people heading home from their holiday visits. Flights were canceled, stranding thousands of passengers at the airport to wait in lines the length of eternity, only to walk away with a new flight that departed days later.

In the midst of that chaos and grief, many travelers ended up on the phone with someone like Jackie Fay — a bright, friendly voice in a call center somewhere else in America, welcome relief from the maze of recorded menus, pulling whatever levers she can find in the vast universe of hubs-and-spokes to get passengers home.

“Our hiring is to find people who are going to be compassionate,” says Fay, who spent 35 years as a reservation agent for Alaska Airlines and now serves as the machinists union rep for her former colleagues. “That's what we're there to do. We're basically the front line.”

The airline industry has changed in many ways since Fay was hired in the 1970s. Self-service now rules: The rise of third-party booking sites has all but doomed travel agents, algorithms rebook passengers automatically, and some carriers are testing kiosk systems that allow travelers to choose their own routes after a cancellation. Meanwhile, airlines have outsourced everything from baggage handlers to cabin cleaners, seeking to minimize labor costs as much as possible.

Reservation agents, however, have remained a constant. “Really, what we do behind the scenes isn't any different from what we did 35 years ago,” Fay says. And despite all the algorithms that now make so many of the decisions behind the customer experience, Fay expects her profession — the people behind the machines, caring for frantic travelers in times of need — will stick around for a long time.

It isn't as if the airlines haven't tried to shed their call centers — it just hasn't panned out. In the 2000s, carriers including Delta and United offshored many of them to India and the Philippines, but brought them back after consumers complained they couldn't understand the people on the other end of the line.

Since then, airlines have developed technologies that ease the rebooking process; much of it is automated, and waiting on hold is less painful if a switchboard calls you back when an agent is available. But unexpected weather events always test the system — and require all hands on deck.

Airlines handle these situations differently. American Airlines, for example, says it schedules its 14,500 U.S.-based customer service agents for maximum capacity, and offers voluntary time off when call volume is low. “Usually, we find that we have enough people willing to not work,” says Kerry Philipovitch, American's senior vice president for customer experience. “But if not, we just incur the expense.”

Sometimes, though, unpredictable events can triple demand within hours, requiring mandatory overtime on short notice — what Jackie Fay calls “mando-ing,” for short. Where the customer service workforce is unionized, including Southwest Airlines and as of recently American as well, strict rules govern who will be “mandoed,” in what order.

In those situations, airline managers will ask union officials to help round people up to take on more shifts. That's easier than it used to be, because many agents now work from home, and don't need to commute. But in times of unusual need, like a hurricane that struck Puerto Vallarta in October, the airline will put agents up in hotels near their call centers, and bring in meals to keep them fueled.

Serving customers can be time-intensive work. While airlines track how long agents spend on the phone with passengers, they're hesitant to put pressure on staff to cut calls short, even when the list of people on hold is mounting.

“It's not profitable, nor is it business-wise, to do that,” Fay says. “The person you have, if you don't handle their situation, they're just going to be calling back, so there's going to be another person on the line.” Agents have to be able to keep sustained focus, to do that over and over again. “It takes a special person who is able to be attached to a phone and sit there all the time,” Fay says. “If you have ADD, it's not the job for you.”

With technology ever improving, airlines may be tempted to design artificial intelligence systems to do a reservation agent's job cheaper and more efficiently. But that could be risky, professional passenger advocate (and Washington Post columnist) Chris Elliott says.

“The airlines that are not so good are the ones that think all their problems can be solved by technology, or act as if their personnel is completely replaceable,” Elliott says. Humans will always be necessary to recognize situations that require an empathetic response — even if an algorithm might have done something different in order to serve fliers who've paid for better service, for example.

“There's got to to be the opportunity for someone to come in and say ‘wait a minute, we've got a group of schoolchildren, we can't have them sleeping on the floor of the airport,' ” Elliott says. “Where a computer program might say, ‘these are not high-value customers.' ”

And according to American Airlines' Philipovitch, even if a computer program does end up doing a job better than a human, traveler preference will still win out. “I think the most important thing is that we give the customer the choice to interact with us in the way they want to interact with us,” she says.

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