I spend a lot more time on the phone with airlines than I’d care to think about (or admit). Probably somewhere around 2-3 hours per day when all is said and done. There are some airlines that are totally predictable, be it in a good way or a bad way. Sometimes I’ll pick up the phone and know for sure I won’t have an issue because agents are consistently well trained. With other airlines I can’t help but wonder what new rule they’ll come up with when I call them.
With that in mind, I’ll share some general observations of mine, ranking call centers from best to worst:
Aeroplan is Air Canada’s spun off frequent flyer program. In theory you’d think that means they have “lower” standards, though that’s not the case. In my experience they have the most consistently well trained agents. I don’t dread calling them since I know I can tell them exactly what I want, and I won’t have any issues. While the general “golden rule” of call centers is to “hang up and call again” if you don’t get the answer you like, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve had to do that with Aeroplan. So kudos to them.
I rarely have issues with American, simply because their award system is “simple.” By that I mean that everything prices as one-ways, stopovers aren’t allowed except at North American gateways, and they operate based on routing rules. All that translates to very little that agents can be confused about.
The one item of confusion is often getting them to request the right fare buckets when booking awards. While Star Alliance has very consistent “codes” for first and business class awards (“O” and “I” respectively), OneWorld has a few different ones. For example, the “normal” first class award code for OneWorld is “Z,” while Qantas uses “P.” So nine out of ten times if you call American after finding Qantas award space online you’ll be told it’s not there, unless you prompt the agent to request “P” space. At that point the agent will either apologize for not knowing that to begin with, or belittle you for trying to tell them how to do their job.
Oh my gosh, these people are chatty. So chatty. You know that neighbor you have that, whenever you pull into the driveway, will corner you and start an hour-long conversation about something entirely irrelevant? I once had an agent tell me a 30 minute long story about the former call center contract that Continental used to have with Disney, that ended with the merger. Want to make a new friend? Call up Continental and say “hey, can you tell me about the Disney call center contract you guys used to have?” You’ll be on the phone all day.
With that out of the way, I find Continental very easy to deal with, simply because their computer auto-prices awards. When you call other airlines with crazy routings, like San Francisco to Munich to Zurich to Bangkok to Tokyo, they’ll usually immediately tell you “gee, I don’t think that’s going to be legal.” Continental, on the other hand, will usually be happy to enter just about anything, since the computer will tell them how much it should cost.
On one hand that means there are fewer opportunities to “take advantage” of an airline when it comes to award routings (see US Airways below), but on the other hand it makes things very simple.
And of course as they’re waiting for your award to price, ask the agent to sing your toddler a lullaby. They’ll be more than happy to, I’m sure.
United’s call center experience is incredibly inconsistent. For one, you have everything from highly trained agents in Chicago to agents based in Pune that often aren’t trained so well. I will say as a general rule, as far as outsourced airline call centers go, United’s are among the best.
Everything has to be done manually at United, meaning you give them the routing and then they have to manually verify that it’s “legal.” That can be a positive or a negative. As an example, I’ll often read the agent an award routing, and they’ll immediately tell me “I don’t think that’s going to be legal,” and refuse to even try. Some will tell me “it has to come up automatically between the origin and destination for me to book this.” On the other end of the spectrum, you have other agents that are willing to book just about anything without verifying the legality of the routing. I know plenty of cases of people getting more than one stopover, exceeding the MPM, etc., simply because there aren’t any automatic checks in place.
US Airways’ call center is so bad that it’s good. Literally. US Airways’ award system doesn’t auto-price anything, which can really work in your advantage, since geography isn’t a strong point for most US Airways agents. For example, most US Airways agents believe Madrid is in South America and Amman is in Vietnam. They also believe Europe is a country. Use that to your advantage accordingly. Along the same lines, US Airways agents are very religious, so if you have the same first name as a book in the Bible, be prepared for the agent to belch out a quick “hallelujah” (I’m actually not saying that to be funny, it has happened on more than one occasion).
When I’m having a bad day I just remind myself how fortunate I am not to be an agent at Delta SkyMiles. Can you imagine what it would be like to have someone call in and ask for award space, only to have to tell them that a one way coach award from Malaga to New York will run them 125,000 miles… plus fuel surcharges? Or how about a business class award to Europe… for 325,000 miles?
There are so many issues with SkyMiles that I don’t even know where to start. From my perspective, the first issue is that award space for so many of Delta’s partners can’t be searched online, so I often have to rely on SkyMiles agents to tell me the correct information. Second, SkyTeam uses so many different fare “codes” for award tickets, that agents can’t even keep track of them. Third, so many SkyTeam airlines have blackout dates. That means that the partner airline could very well have award availability, though you can’t book it through Delta due to “blackout dates.” That’s not the case with Star Alliance or OneWorld, as far as I know (some airlines do have blackout dates, but then the availability doesn’t show up — as opposed to SkyTeam where the agent sees it but it’s blacked out).
My theory is that the reason Delta SkyMiles agents are so poorly trained is because they never actually book awards. People call in to ask about how much an award would cost, only to be told 500,000 miles, hang up, and call it a day.
As far as most SkyMiles agents are concerned, the only airlines in SkyTeam are Delta and Air France. Vietnam Airlines? Huh? What’s that?
So it’s not that the agents themselves are that bad. It’s a combination of poorly trained agents and very little to work with.