US Airways To Tackle Complaints

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Wanted: US Airways customer service agents.

Job: Responding to a backlog of e-mails and letters from US Airways travelers.

The correspondence, mostly complaints, is piling up at the airline's Tempe, Ariz., headquarters. Since its merger with America West last September, US Airways has attracted a flood of unhappy comments about its new merged Web site and frequent-flier program. The carrier has put out the word on its internal bulletin boards that it needs workers to respond to about 6,000 e-mails and 1,500 letters.

Since May, complaints have poured into US Airways' customer-service department as travelers have had difficulty navigating the Web site or found discrepancies in their frequent-flier account balances. Of the nation's top 20 airlines, US Airways received the most complaints filed in May with the Transportation Department, according to the agency's latest Air Traveler Consumer Report. A traveler who contacts the government is often one who had an unsatisfactory response from the airline itself.

"We got slammed," acknowledges Elise Eberwein, spokeswoman for US Airways. "We have a long way to go, and we'll get there. We have to establish ourselves as a customer-relations center that not only apologizes when things go wrong but also works hard to convince customers to give us another try."

The airline is aiming to add dozens to its staff of 140 customer-service workers. Offering pay of $8.50 an hour, US Airways is hoping to attract workers at least 18 years old with a high school diploma or the equivalent. Candidates need to have data-entry skills and excellent written and verbal communication skills.

While many frequent fliers applaud the carrier's new effort to respond to customer complaints, some travelers said they were alarmed that US Airways would not be relying on employees with greater seniority and airline experience to address their concerns.

"People who have been in the business longer have more understanding and can better respond to customer concerns," says US Airways frequent flier Andrea Williams of New Hope, Pa. "I wonder how an 18-year-old who was just hired by the airline can actually respond to my issues."

Ken Rinzler, a lawyer from the Wesley Heights section of Washington, said he became so frustrated with the lack of response from airlines that he stopped sending his complaints years ago. "My experience with airlines is that customer service is generally useless. They're generally not much empowered to make much of a difference," Rinzler said.

US Airways executives defend their hiring program and insist that the new employees will be fully trained and able to address travelers' concerns as needed.

The new staff will free senior workers to answer customer-complaint telephone lines. Only about 50 percent of customer service phone calls are now getting answered because of the amount of time, as much as 20 minutes per call, each worker spends on them, Eberwein said.

"I'm proud that we are putting a program like this together and that we are not going to try to spin our way out of a time when we can use the additional help," Eberwein said.

US Airways said the jobs are only temporary, lasting about two weeks to three months, or as long as the airline needs the workers. After their assignments are completed, the employees will then be "on call" to return during peak periods.

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