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Life on the Other End of an Airline Reservations Line

An inside look at a day in the life of a Delta reservations agent

Ever wonder what airline reservations agents see when you call the 1-800 number? Or why they have to transfer you to someone else after you’ve already worked your way through an endless queue of prompts? Or (more importantly) if they have the ability to waive a fee or upgrade you if you’re nice? 

Like most frequent fliers, I’ve wondered about all of these things over the years. So when I was offered the opportunity to spend an afternoon answering customer calls with Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, I jumped at it.

Here are a few questions I was finally able to get answers to:

Is the agent in a giant call center overseas?

Not necessarily. At Delta, “reservation sales specialists” work from a variety of places, from Atlanta to Singapore. Most calls are routed to one of seven U.S. offices, and some agents even answer from home. (Many airlines actually have employees who work from home because it lets them schedule people at odd hours.)

What can (and can’t) a phone agent do?

At Delta, agents are empowered to do a lot, and they can always reach out to a supervisor if something is outside of their purview (like waving a fee). Agents can show “situational flexibility,” meaning they can make decisions based on an individual customer’s situation (rather than just applying a policy without any flexibility). This doesn’t mean they can give waivers and change the rules for everyone (airlines do have shareholders to answer to, after all), but it does mean they can help a customer out of a tricky situation. For instance, if an agent sees that you’ve had lots of delayed flights on this trip, or that bad weather is coming your way, he or she might be able to give you an earlier flight. But there are limits on this flexibility: When it comes to fares or mileage ticket prices, the computer is king. Delta has tightened up its award routing rules and pricing recently, and agents have no say in the matter.

Are calls really being recorded?

Yes, and airlines listen to them regularly. By reviewing calls, the airline can gather information about trends. For example, agents noticed that a lot of people were frustrated about still having to pay a bag fee even when their luggage was lost or delayed, and the company eventually decided to refund bag fees in those cases. Bereavement fares are another example: Agents were able to show that the policy followed in the past was too restrictive, and now they can be more flexible when warranted. (At Delta, the CEO and several vice presidents have even been known to answer the phone from time to time, which is a whole other level of administrative oversight.)

Do agents get compensated for call performance?

Yes and no. There are lots of metrics involved, but agents do get rewarded for actual sales. Still, when I was helping Delta’s booking agents, I didn’t notice any pressure to make a sale on the phone. And what about those car rental or hotel booking transfers that airlines offer with “preferred partners”? Yes, agents do receive a bonus if they book you a car rental or hotel.

What does the agent know about me?

When the call begins, an agent can see your name, elite status level, address, number of  miles flown (and how much you have spent) with the airline, and any related credit card partnerships. But I also noticed that agents take notes with helpful details as they talk with customers so they can personalize the call.

What is the best way to voice a complaint?

Delta sends regular post-travel surveys, and the company actually follows up on each one via phone or email. The customer care department (which is separate from reservations) is staffed by people who have worked in other parts of the company, so they all have a lot of insight into how the airline’s operations work. I also spent time with these dedicated customer care phone agents, and the visit was revealing. People are pleasantly surprised to receive a call apologizing for mistakes—like a mishandled bag, for example—and the extra effort gives them a more favorable impression of the airline. And while I had assumed that frequent travelers would be the most demanding customers, they are actually very understanding when things go wrong. It’s really the inexperienced travelers who are  more likely to complain.

What is the best way to have an issue resolved favorably?

If you have to complain, be concise and informative. There is no need to share detailed background about you life. (Yes, people tend to talk a lot when they get an agent on the phone). It is helpful to include your reservation or confirmation numbers as well as explicit details about your situation. Hold off on making grand requests for a “total refund” or “free ticket”; agents have guidelines that tell them what kind compensation can be provided (if any), and some of that is based on a passenger’s elite status level or the price of the ticket bought. Agents also have access to customer management systems, so they can see a record of your past experiences, whether positive or negative. (So if you complain on a monthly basis just to get a few bonus miles, they know it.)

What should I do on my next call?

Be friendly; agents appreciate having someone ask how they are doing. Have your confirmation code or frequent flier number ready. Do some research before asking for a change: If you want to take an earlier flight, it helps if you already know what your options are and which of them you’d like to switch to. During my calls, we spent a lot of time listening to customers “think out loud” about what they wanted to do, and many people ended up saying, “I’ll call you back when I decide.” Lastly, if an agent makes an exception for you or tells you that you are eligible for some sort of assistance like a hotel or food voucher, ask that agent to “document the record.” This means that details of what you discussed will be written in your reservation so that the next agent you speak with can act upon it.

Overall, I thought Delta did a good job of tackling these tricky interactions. I was happy to learn that agents are encouraged to check back with callers during hold times to let them know what’s happening, and I appreciated that agents have tools that let them research information so they can try to help you instead of passing the call to someone else.

Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.