It was about 7 p.m. at a Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport restaurant when I overheard a man regaling the bartender about his latest travel woes.
Thankfully, major domestic carriers offer the option to leave a callback number, so they’ll call you when it’s your turn vs. waiting that whole time. The only issue is making sure you don’t miss that return call — which I have multiple times thinking it was spam.
So why is it so hard to get a customer service agent on the phone right now? And what do you do if you’re trying to talk to one ASAP?
“Basically long wait times are a fascinating confluence of a lot of different disparate issues,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and author of “Take More Vacations,” who recently spent seven hours over two days trying to get help with his mother-in-law’s tickets for a Ukraine trip.
Keyes said one of those issues is that airlines are in the process of making significant scheduling changes. This has been happening throughout the pandemic, but after airlines added a ton of flights to their summer schedules to meet growing demand, they’re having to make changes based on factors like how many pilots or crew members they have available to work those flights.
“Every time they make a schedule change, you’re going to have a significant number of people who have been booked on the original flight with a new flight that doesn’t work,” Keyes said. “They’re going to need support.”
Keyes said things like the huge uptick in the number of people flying, and that there are more vacation and leisure travelers flying right now, also add to hold times.
“On average, these travelers are going to call the airlines more than a business traveler who’s experienced and kind of generally knows what to do,” Keyes said.
The national labor shortage isn’t helping, either. Airlines are scrambling to ramp up hiring for call centers and baggage handlers, “and that’s really coming to a head right now with travel picking up,” Keyes said. Customers are seeing the byproduct of understaffing not only with issues like customer service wait times, but also long delays getting their baggage.
“That’s sort of creating a compounding effect because if a bag didn’t make the connection and it doesn’t arrive at your final destination, you’ve got to call the airlines,” Keyes said. “Everything is just kind of piling onto itself.”
Lindsey Renken, co-founder and chief executive of the new travel app Airheart, speculates that thanks to the confusion of international travel restrictions, airline customer service agents are dealing with answering questions not addressed clearly on government or airline websites.
“They are likely taking on some of the burden of managing the influx of inquiries related to interpreting these complex restrictions and policies,” Renken said in an email. Additionally, “Border restriction changes can cause flights to be canceled last-minute, and passengers scramble to rebook, even with flexible fares.”
Savanthi Syth, airline analyst for the financial services company Raymond James, thinks airlines are also dealing with a hangover of issues related to last year’s travel interruptions.
“I think it is a combination of the demand recovery being steeper than anticipated ... and higher numbers of travelers that have vouchers, travel certificates, and other forms of credit that may require additional assistance,” Syth wrote in an email. “On that second point, I believe pre-crisis, [about 5 percent] of tickets were purchased with credits and earlier this year it was 15-25%, depending on the airline.”
According to a spokesperson for Delta, wait times are about two to three hours. Since the pandemic began, its reservation and customer service lines have received record-breaking call volumes. Having travel ramp up rapidly hasn’t helped. The airline is in the process of hiring 1,300 specialists to meet the demand.
Delta recommends travelers try using self-service options online or through the Delta app first to see whether problems can be solved without the help of an agent over the phone.
Andrea Koos, senior manager of corporate communications for American Airlines, said the airline is hiring hundreds of reservation agents to address the issue of longer hold times.
“American is also the only major U.S. carrier to offer customers the option to request a callback within a 7-day period at a time of day selected by the customer, so they can avoid a hold time and discuss their travel plans at a time most convenient for them,” Koos wrote in an email.
Here’s what you can do.
So what can you do to get in touch with an airline in a hurry? First, check to see whether your problem can be resolved online or via the airline’s mobile app.
Keyes recommended calling an airline’s international customer service centers. Instead of competing for time with the U.S. office, try dialing the ones in Canada, Mexico, Britain or Singapore, for example.
“All of these offices around the world have call center agents that can handle your itinerary or your reservation just the same as a call center in the U.S.,” Keyes said.
Before you do, though, make sure your phone plan includes international calls.
If international call centers aren’t fast enough, some travelers turn to social media for assistance, reporting that they get a quicker response by tweeting at or sending a direct message to airlines about their issues.
No matter how you get in touch, Keyes says your best bet for getting what you want is to be a decent person.
“Be as nice as possible, not only from a human level, because these folks working are being stretched extraordinarily thin, and also you’re more likely to get what you want if you treat them with kindness,” Keyes said. “As horrendous an experience as it is for the traveler, you can imagine what the experience is for the call center agent who is not only working back to back, but every single person that they are getting on the phone has been waiting for four, five, six hours, probably not that happy.”
More travel tips
Planning: Your guide to traveling again, in 5 steps | How to move to Europe | Less busy national park alternatives |Protect your plans from covid chaos | Save on wedding travel | How to cook at a vacation rental | How to travel with kids under 5
Road trips: How to find a rental car | Snacks | National park tips | Rental car disasters | Try Kevin Costner’s road trip app | Trying a fancy bus from NY to DC | How to save on road trips as gas prices soar | What it’s like to rent from Turo
Flying: What to do about lost luggage | Getting through to airline customer service | How to get a refund | Extend your flight voucher | Find a good neck pillow | How to deal with chaotic airports | Cut the line at the airport | Get your kid a frequent flier account | Plane workouts | Why you should pick your seat | Can you fly with edibles? | When an airline bumps you | Your canceled flight emergency kit