Comparing airline call centers when it comes to award bookings

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

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.


  1. Do you ever get agents who think you used to be/are a call center agent because you know so much?

  2. someone at American told me there are no “low mileage” first class awards on any partner airlines and that the only lower mileage awards were on AA flights only. Is this true?

  3. @ BR — Quite the opposite. When I know the rules and the agent is obviously clueless, they just accuse me of not knowing what I’m talking about, or of “trying to tell [them] how to do [their] job.”

    @ Tiffani — Quite the opposite. Only “saver” awards are available on partners, while the “standard” award level (which has fewer capacity restrictions) is only available on American.

  4. Your story is not very consistent, you start off by talking about quality of call centers, you end up complaining about expensive skymiles and their system. Not sure if the agents should be blamed for that?

  5. @ Hessel — My point is twofold (and not designed to bitch about the SkyMiles program as such). I’m theorizing that the fact that SkyMiles pricing is so complicated and ridiculously high causes agents to be so poorly trained, especially given the inconsistency between all their partner airlines. Delta has the most complicated award system of any airline, combined with average employees, which makes for a bad experience for the customer.

  6. Ben,

    Just out of interest, what would you expect the taxes to be on a LHR-BKK-LHR routing, in F, on TG(using US miles).
    Also, can the UK tax, be avoided, or reduced, by routing through FRA or MUC?

  7. @ Captain — The UK luxury tax is based on where you’re departing from, so connecting wouldn’t help. The taxes will likely be somewhere around $250-300 roundtrip, plus US Airways’ $50 processing fee. If you departed out of another country they would be lower.

  8. The folks at US Airways call centers are wrong, there is no book of the Bible called “Lucky”.

  9. Spot-on regarding Mileage Plus. When I booked Emirates First Class the day before that partnership ended, I expected the worst, but it was the easiest award I ever booked.

    It is the simple non-stop UA or Star Alliance awards where I run into problems. But all in all, pretty good service.

  10. Case in point – just travelled SYD – LHR return booked as two one-way tickets. Outbound TG F class was approx $80 and return OZ C class was over $300 (though booked through Mileage Plus).

    The tax could be much reduced it you either
    a) booked two separate awards, one UK – Germany and then onwards from there
    b) booked on miles from Germany and paid cash for the short European flight
    c) Booked award starting in Germany that routed through London
    d) booked with a stopover of more than 24 hours in Europe

    Now I have no idea whether US Airways allows stopovers on mileage redemption – Lucky’s your man for that. I guess it would also be a personal judgement call for you as to whether jumping through these hoops would be worth the money saved.


  11. @ Mark — All great points. It’s worth noting that a stopover of more than 24 hours in Germany will also raise taxes by about $60, and you still pay the shorthaul APD. All excellent suggestions, though.

  12. Agreed on Delta. I’ve been trying to book an award trip to Europe, but the inability to actually see how many miles trips go for with their partners, and the weird low-mid-hi award dates they have, I finally put it off until today.

    I wanted to travel anywhere in Europe for three weeks over a six week period, but the Skymiles agent told me that she could only look for three dates or three cities. Even when I narrowed down to a specific three weeks out of IAD, she would only help me with specific cities, and couldn’t really tell me which cities would costs fewer miles and on which days. I finally let her off the hook when it became clear she was floundering.

    I ended up searching “flexible dates” for every single European airport that is a non-stop from either JFK or ATL, and cobbled together the “low” award dates to pick a viable itinerary to use my miles business elite. Six hours later I got flights from IAD to Frankurt and then from Heathrow to IAD three weeks later for 150K miles. This was only after guessing how many miles things would cost because the site didn’t show it until you completed a whole itinerary. You’d think the agents would be able to know what cities are cheap and when.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to it. The transatlantic legs are in the 767-400 that reportedly have the lie-flats. We’ll see!

  13. AB — Low business class TATL on Delta is 100K. In my experience, Air France is usually your best bet for TATL award availability using Skymiles (especially from IAD).

  14. My experience is obviously more limited. But I agree that Aeroplan is top notch. Everyone is always friendly, well-informed and makes things easy.

    UA MP I have had more times when I had to hang up and call back. Some agents are more willing to look for space on the *A partners than others.

    I may just hire one of you guys when it comes time to cash in my AA and BA miles.

  15. “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.”


  16. @Lucky – will definitely be using your service when booking my V Australia award thru Delta. While I am on record of disliking travel there, I do want to try out that carrier.

  17. I don’t have status with Delta, so they “hide” a lot of their availability online. It is very annoying… Does this not cost them more money to have more people calling in and taking much longer than needed time with a CSR?

    What will happen with United and Continental’s call centers after the merge?

  18. I agree with inconsistency at United, though so far I haven’t had anything too extremely negative. I recently booked a trip where I used an AA all-partner award one way and UA *A award on the return. I made a few calls to each as I put things on hold and tweaked my plans. Even though I’m without status on AA and 1P on UA, I felt their agents were more consistent and knowledgeable than some of the UA agents on the Premier line.

  19. I have gotten pretty good at making good use of Delta miles, but their agents are clueless. If they can’t find something I know should be there, I just say “ok thanks for trying” and immediately call back. The Platinum line agents are generally better. Not reached Diamond yet.

    I am not surprised Aeroplan is so good. Frequent flyer programs are big revenue generators, so spinning them off I can see should result in better product as you get a focused entity doing the work, instead of having to leach off the generally less profitable (and thus less able to invest in it’s people and system) mother airline

  20. I have had some great luck with finding the right delta agent who thinks is a game to find a low cost routing and really wants to win. they alwasy tell me they are frustrated that the website is nmot easier to use because it would eliminate many phone calls. that said i am taped out of sky miles and with the new bonuses I have left delta for a while to learn other programs.
    I saw you can get BMI miles 1k per night max 3k as a double dip partner with HILTON. Are BMI miles easy to use/useful?

  21. Is Delta’s IT a problem? I’m used to United. For example I ask how’s the availability on NH IAD-NRT for a certain date. I get an answer well within a minute. On Delta I ask the same type of question (say KL ATL-AMS) and I have to wait over 5 minutes. Unbearable.

    Also I agree that Delta’s agents are poorly trained. But even the very rare somewhat competent agent seems hobbled by Delta’s technology.

  22. Even the worst on this list is a dream compared to Alitalia.
    Take it from me, don’t even bother.

  23. Really hope new United uses Continental’s pricing engine. So nice to get exotic itineraries handled so efficiently and often in our favor.

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