Here’s Why American Airlines Has Such Long Hold Times, And When It Will Get Better

If you call a U.S. airline expect to wait on hold. And depending on what’s happening that day, the wait can be hours. When you need help the most, because your flight was cancelled or you’re going to miss a connection, that’s when the hold times are likely to be longest – because everyone else probably needs help at the same time for the same reason.

Things get a little bit better if you have elite status with an airline and your calls get prioritized, but sometimes only a little bit better. At times last year holds for Delta Air Lines SkyMiles Diamond members could stretch over 40 hours. Delta hold times have been generally worse than at other airlines (here’s a workaround that still works).

American Airlines call center representatives have been rebelling against mandatory overtimesince May 2021. And an employee asked outgoing CEO Doug Parker about whether there’s any end in sight at a meeting after the carrier’s earnings call on Thursday, a recording of which was reviewed by View From The Wing.

According to Parker, “call volumes are at unprecedented highs” due to flight cancellations stemming from Omicron “at levels we’ve never seen.” He says that “the number of res agents we have for a normal period of this much travel is more than enough, but we just can’t ever really get fully caught up.”

He continued, “we certainly have looked out a couple of times, looked out into the future, and said we have enough res agents now to deal with where and certainly where we’re expected to be, only to be surprised by a new thing.”

Julie Rath, American’s Vice President, Customer Experience & Reservations at American Airlines, added

  • American Airlines reservations is 20% above 2019 call volumes
  • 450 reservations agents moved over to work in airports
  • They’ve hired 845 new reservations agents this month, but that’s not helpful right away becauese they’ll be in training during the first quarter
  • They’ve opened up Miami as a base for home-based reservations growth (before they pandemic they were looking to eliminate home-based reservations agents altogether)

The good news is that call volumes should subside when Covid abates and travel plans are less up in the air, though some incremental amount of change volume may be the result of the industry-wide elimination of most change fees outside of basic economy fares. When it’s cheaper to make changes you get more changes, and more call volume.

Customers needing to reach American Airlines when wait times are long (and when twitter isn’t responsive, American’s twitter team is more helpful than most for getting things done) should consider dialing the UK or Australia reservations line. These calls centers don’t get busy as a result of bad weather in the U.S. generally.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Ideally there shouldn’t be a need to call someone. Everything should be doable from your phone. If companies aren’t ever going to staff call centers properly (and I think that ship has long sailed) then you have to allow customers do it online and via phones.

    If you have rules that you waive in certain emergencies then it should be waived online and not require human interactions because we clearly can’t do that in any practical time frame.

  2. @ Gary — Maybe if they would remove some f their stupid, greedy policies, hold times would be shorter. Like, why do I have all mountain of vouchers that I have to use of these next 6 moths, when Delta is giving me 2 years?

  3. They don’t do themselves any favors with their IT.

    Several incidents stand out.

    1. I recently tried to change a flight. Website kept erroring out. I tried to cancel it (was a fully flexible/refundable fare), the cancellation option only offered a credit, not a refund. Unwilling to rebook with a credit since, well, even a new fully flexible ticket would be back to the “original form of payment.” Had no choice but to call to sort it out. The phone team was able to help, but then the new itinerary didn’t ticket a full day later. Back to the phones, where they were able to figure out that “it got stuck somewhere.” Then trying to upgrade on points. Can’t do that through the site either. And so it goes.
    2. They canceled one leg of a transatlantic round trip where I was able to buy business at a good rate. I found an alternative outbound on another airline, but wanted to keep the return. I had to call, naturally. They wouldn’t rebook me on a competitor – they said I had a couple of days to find an alternative and would only offer me a refund for the leg I was not taking (it wasn’t “at the airport” or within 24 hours) or they’d put me on the next available flight a week later. I asked for a refund. They gave me a credit, at the wrong amount. I asked for a refund in cash, another call – this time from overseas and they said I accepted a credit. I had to escalate to explain that they cancelled my flight – I am due a refund, there is no question here and a credit shouldn’t even be under discussion. They emailed me the next day with the new refund, in cash – at a still incorrect and even worse value. Took two more long calls to sort it out. I am not sure they ever got it right but it was close enough to give in.
    3. Booked AA EWR-MIA-Managua for this past December. They cancelled the MIA-Managua leg as they did not restart the service post COVID. “Rebooked” me as EWR-MIA only and did not offer anything. I tried to cancel through the website *since they cancelled my flight* and they gave me the dreaded credit good for one year. Had no choice but to call.

    All these were fairly straightforward. The first should have been doable through the website. The second might have needed one call to review options and confirm that I would find my own way there but take the return – but not four calls! The third should have been fully automatic. You’re not going where I need, email me with a cancellation and full refund. They did neither.

    Having dealt with a dozen airlines throughout this pandemic, they aren’t the worst, but they are far from the best.

  4. And to be clear, I am certain that the reason the site only offers a credit is because they want to push me towards a credit even if I qualify for a refund. The complexity and frustration, along with the need for so many calls is by design.

  5. I waited 5 hours for a representative. Left my phone number for a callback at 9PM, the callback rang through at 2AM. The agent was knowledgeable and courteous – especially considering she must have been incredibly overworked.

    If they they put more tools in my hands for re-booking flights online I would never have had to call in the first place. Agents are only part of the problem – the app and web need significant improvement.

  6. This is a very weak spot for most airlines. Customer service hold times are unacceptable.
    They are never properly staffed, the airlines are squeezing every nickel out of customer service at the expense of customers. I recently canceled a leisure trip due to the inability to reach a customer service rep with another airline. Stupid economics for the airline.

  7. Used a trip credit from my AA wallet today. Received an e-mail that I have bought the reservation at double the stated price. Checked and found that trip credit went through properly, and my card had no charges. Called AA (45 minutes till callback but my wife, whose phone I used, has elite status). Customer service person had no idea what happened. More seriously, after my wife used part of her trip credit for one flight she wanted to book another using up the remainder plus a credit card for the rest. That couldn’t be done online. In fact, what was left of the trip credit couldn’t be used at all that way. She had to–you guessed it–do it through a call to customer service. That was a ridiculous waste of everybody’s time. Wrote a complaint to AA, not holding my breath for anything to improve here.

  8. Executive Platinum here. I’ve called AA a few times over the last few months, actually dating back to October, and I don’t remember a single hold time of less than an hour. Crazy.

  9. “Did you know that you can perform most operations such as changing a flight or requesting a refund on our website?” – Audio recording that periodically interrupts hold music

    “Oh no! I didn’t think to check the website first! How silly of me. Or maybe it’s because I knew I could do the same thing in thirty seconds online but wanted to experience the human touch and exciting gamble of having to hang up and call again.” – Me

  10. The wait time can be filled with the audio version of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism” narrated by Parker himself.

  11. While overall PAX levels are below those of 2019, call volume is 20 percent higher. What’s different? Of those traveling, there is a higher percentage of novice travelers. When things go wrong, these novice travelers don’t have the skill set to deal with even minor anomalies and end up calling in at a higher rate. This is not a criticism but a point worth noting. Yes, there are many things that we experienced travelers would like to do online and some online things that need to be fixed. Yes, it’s frustrating. But, for now, this skewed percentage of novices trips us up and it’s the way it is. This is not about corporate greed. It’s about a short-term but large bulge. Just be thankful that Marriott is not in the airline business.

  12. Wasted 2 days trying to book an award ticket on Qatar QSuite where availability for trip from US to India shows on aa.com when searching each segment separately but not combined on one connecting flight. Called several times and after waiting for automated callback the agent who answered didn’t handle international award bookings so had to transfer me to someone else with of course another long hold time!

    Took 3 attempts then finally the correct kind of agent called back and got it done. If only the website worked properly had no need to call them!

  13. Want to cancel a flight and get a refund? Can’t be done on line, requires a call.
    Want to use a trip credit to pay for a flight put on hold? Can’t be done requires a call.

    The call volume is higher first and foremost because they are inept operators and secondly, because they want to make it painful to get your cash back and difficult to use existing credits.

    Everything else is excuses.

    The only saving grace is unlike the lazy, surly FA’s, the people on the phone are pleasant to deal with once you get them.

  14. High call volumes and long hold times are due to the move to allow tickets to be changed in order to encourage people to book even if they cannot travel due to covid.
    Add in schedule changes happening at a greater rate than pre-covid and airlines are spending alot more time just talking to customers before they ever get on the plane.

    I suspect that there will be a move back to making some tickets non-changeable again even if United feels pressured to match Southwest’s ticket change policies – since Southwest has sizeable operations in nearly every United hub metro.

    Call hold times will improve as covid cases go down and even more so if some tickets become non-changeable again.

  15. Ah…a new batch of 845 agents that you might get a shot at if you HUCA for better or worse. I can hear it now “Sir, I don’t see that routing in the system”

  16. I am an expert on this. I got stuck on an endless work trip and wound up rebooking my flight daily. I called about 10 times. I am lifetime Platinum so I called the Platinum line.

    Wait times averaged about 2 hours, with a minimum wait of one minute (one time) and a maximum of “over four hours” (it was almost five).

    Whatever wait time it warned me of (say 1 hour and 10 minutes) as soon as I chose the option to get a call back, the wait time at least doubled (“we will call you back in 2 hours and 30 minutes”).

    If you miss that call: ouch! Start all over again.

    Once I got the agent on the line she (yes it was always a she) was wonderful, friendly and helpful.

    Moral of the story for you:

    As soon as you think you MIGHT need to contact AA, call and select a callback. If you did it early enough, no time is wasted. Just set your ringer loud and be sure not to miss the call. If your problem resolved itself in the meantime, just don’t answer the call.

    Moral of the story for AA:

    Why the **** don’t you have an online change flight capability? There is nothing I needed the agent to do that her computer gave her any trouble with. Why not just give me that capability? Then you don’t need 845 new agents to type what I ask them to type into a computer.

  17. Even the Executive Platinum number service is horrible. I called recently and was informed it would be 30-35 minutes for a call back. The call back never came. I called the next day and was told 17-20 minutes, so I just stayed on hold with the phone on speaker while I worked. I have had several experiences when the call back feature did not work, going back way before Covid. If I really need to get through I will stay on hold regardless of length. So, blaming Covid is a lie. It was just Parker cutting customer service even at top tier status.
    I have been Executive Platinum a long time and can remember pre-US Airways days when I always talked to a live person immediately after I requested “Agent” at the prompt. My gripe is when you need it most is when you cannot get through. Pre Covid times, my wife and I were scheduled to fly out the next day and received a text our flight was cancelled. Tried to call and the wait was already several hours. Tried the web site but the alternative flights it allowed did not work. The flight that we were automatically re-booked on was for the day after our original flight. We both called in on our respective phones. She left a call back number and I stayed on hold. Over 7 hours later I finally was connected to an agent. She never received the call back. Of course, by the time I talked to an agent all direct flights were gone but I was able to secure a multi connection trip that still got us to our destination but significantly delayed. If I could have talked to someone immediately it would likely have been a better outcome.
    Typical AA blames everything on Covid but the phone service was a disaster long before Covid due to cutting customer service.

  18. American Airlines need to make it possible to do everything online. I’ve been sitting on the phone for over an hour waiting to make reservations for my 3 grandkids to come visit. I can’t make the reservations online because they are minors, although there will be no stops on their flights and they are 11, 13, and 13, so are old enough to sit for a 2 1/2 hour flight. Their parents can drop them at the gate and I can pick them up at the gate. Ridiculous that I can’t book online. I understand having to do reservations on the phone with younger children, but in my case, it’s not necessary. Just frustrating. It wouldn’t be so bad if the waiting wasn’t so ridiculous. Terrible customer service.

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