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    TRAVEL INSIDER 1-800- I-am- truly- fed-up Outsourcing overseas saves carriers money, but unhappy fliers say there s a disconnect. By Laurie Berger, Special to
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 3, 2006
      TRAVEL INSIDER

      1-800- I-am- truly- fed-up

      Outsourcing overseas saves carriers money, but unhappy fliers say there's a disconnect.
      By Laurie Berger, Special to The Times
      September 3, 2006

      PITY the poor passengers who must phone airlines to do anything these days — change a reservation, redeem vouchers, get an upgrade or track lost bags.

      It can take seemingly forever to get a live agent. If you do, the agents are a world away, in Jamaica, India, the Philippines and Lithuania. And these operators in overseas call centers, airlines acknowledge, are sometimes ill-equipped to meet the demands of harried U.S. travelers.
       
      Catherine Rogers of Madison, Wis., was in tears recently trying to rebook a delayed flight through a United Airlines reservations agent in India. She asked about different routings and options, even a refund, but the operator offered none.

      "He didn't have any authority to make decisions," Rogers said. "He just kept saying 'Sorry' and putting me on hold."

      Richard Gamberg of Hawaii, another unhappy flier whose call was routed to India, spent 20 minutes trying unsuccessfully to book an award seat. Once in touch with a U.S. agent, he said, the deed was done in four minutes.

      "They're nice and polite but take too long and have the wrong information," said Gamberg, a 100,000-mile-a-year flier. "They never lose their cool, but they made me lose mine."

      Cash-strapped airlines have followed computer firms, banks and credit-card companies to Asia, Latin America and other areas where it's less expensive to run customer-service centers.

      US Airways and bankrupt United and Delta now send at least half of their U.S.-based callers overseas. (American, Continental, Northwest and Southwest still answer phones in the U.S. using on-site and home-based agents.)

      The troubled carriers' best customers — upper-elite frequent fliers and international passengers — get directed to "cream-of-the-crop" U.S. agents. Pretty much everyone else is sent to the airline equivalent of Siberia, in terms of customer service. Carriers say routing calls to distant lands saves an average of 20% to 50% a year and keeps fares low.

      But experts contend that airlines have forgotten the customer. "You'd be surprised how many decisions like this are made simply on cost," said Keith Dawson, editorial director of Call Center Magazine, an industry publication.

      And complaints are increasing as this summer's weather, air traffic and security delays drive more travelers to the phones — and to operators in distant lands.

      "Airlines have reduced the number of people answering calls, and that means more errors, particularly when there's bad weather like we've seen this summer," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

      One popular online forum, http://www.flyertalk.com , has logged thousands of posts on the topic. Many say that overseas agents don't know local geography, airline policies or carriers' routes; can't handle complex questions; and often refuse to transfer callers to a U.S.-based operator.

      Jeri Bowden of McLean, Va., for one, said she spent eight lunch hours trying to redeem a paper upgrade through several India-based agents she couldn't understand.

      "I kept asking for someone who spoke English without an accent," said Bowden, who registered her gripe on http://www.untied.com , a United complaint site. "I would have screamed, but I was at work."

      Experts say the frustration is understandable. It's hard for Americans to "get past the clipped British accent" of Indian agents, said Virginia Mann, a UC Irvine speech scientist.

      "Travelers are already under stress when they call," she said. "When they can't communicate with the person who's supposed to be helping them, they explode."

      Some call center experts blame it on poor training.

      A 2005 Cornell University study of Indian call centers found that employees had little or no power to make decisions. About 41% relied on scripts, and more than 50% had less than one year of experience.

      "On average, U.S. call centers take less time to answer calls and answer them correctly without escalating them to a supervisor," said David Butler, executive director of the National Assn. of Call Centers.
      But call center outsourcing is here to stay. In the travel industry, it's growing 8% a year, according to Datamonitor, a London-based consulting firm.

      Customer backlash has at least one U.S. carrier reconsidering its decision to go overseas.

      US Airways, which last year saved $14 million from February to May by sending 80% of all of its U.S. callers overseas, has just spent $2 million to restore about 350 U.S. agents.

      "We were hearing horror stories from customers and knew the service was substandard," said Scott Kirby, executive vice president of sales and marketing. "It was the perfect storm of language barriers, cultural issues and brand-new agents."

      The merged US Airways-America West now outsources 60% of all of its customers' calls to centers in the Philippines, Mexico and El Salvador.

      Delta, which has saved millions exporting almost half of its calls, dropped one of its three India centers for "poor performance." It has since replaced it with another firm there.

      "Our goal in India has been to improve conversation skills," spokesman Anthony Black said. "We're trying to get them to be less formal."

      The airline now has five centers, two of which are in Lithuania and Jamaica.

      United, LAX's largest carrier, wouldn't divulge its number of overseas call centers. But the airline said agents are trained, monitored and empowered equally, no matter where they are.

      "If a customer is not happy, they can ask for a supervisor," spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

      But passengers beg to differ. Los Angeles frequent flier Robert Rogers said he was upgraded by an India-based United agent, then denied his front-cabin seat at the gate.

      "I don't care what the person in India promised, I can't do it," he said the airport agent told him. Rogers, who is 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 200 pounds, was sent back to a middle seat in coach.

      When we contacted the airline on Rogers' behalf, United acknowledged there was a reservation error, upgraded Rogers to upper elite status for future flights and promised his reservations would be routed to senior-level U.S. agents for the rest of the year.

      Meanwhile, other fliers have taken matters into their own hands.

      Some play agent roulette, redialing the 800 number until they land a U.S. operator. Others report success choosing the international, Spanish-speaking and Web support options on airlines' voice-mail menus. And still others phone on weekdays, when, they say, calls are less likely to be routed overseas.

      Steve Danishek, a Seattle-based travel agent, said that passengers should check for mistakes. He now double- and triple-checks every transaction after one outsourced agent booked a family to the wrong Hawaiian island and another ticketed a passenger for the wrong day.

      Danishek said the errors weren't discovered until days later, when confirmation arrived by snail mail instead of e-mail. "I had to pay $700 out of my pocket to make it right with my clients."

      Although fliers don't have much protection against errors by overseas agents, San Francisco-based travel attorney Al Anolik said passengers should stand up for their rights anyway.

      "Airlines can't delegate that duty and say they're not responsible," he said, encouraging dissatisfied travelers to demand compensation in the form of ticket refunds or future upgrade vouchers.

      Some dissatisfied fliers are voting with their pocketbooks. Bowden said she would rather fly to Hawaii on American instead of United, her preferred carrier.

      "American cost more," she said of her upcoming vacation, "but I didn't want to go through those hassles again."

      *


      Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012, or e-mail travel@....
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