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Phone jam-ups stymie fliers

Airlines unable to handle calls after snowstorm

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By Katie Johnston Chase and Alexa McMahon
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / December 29, 2010

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As airlines were scrambling to get flight schedules back to normal yesterday, stranded travelers were struggling to reach them, sometimes being left on hold for more than an hour — or worse, disconnected from the call.

Cali Archon of Portsmouth, N.H., tried calling JetBlue Airways for four hours yesterday morning to rebook her 15-year-old daughter’s flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But each time, after about five minutes of recorded messages, the system told her: “Please try back at a later time. We are doing the best we can to manage our call volumes at this time. This call will end now.’’

And then it did.

This week’s storm, which dumped more than 18 inches of snow on Boston, exposed some of the cutbacks airlines have made in recent years.

Carriers have reduced the number of flights, which means many of them are operating at close to capacity and it can take longer to rebook an influx of passengers on the few seats available after flights are canceled. Airlines also have closed call centers as more passengers turn to the Internet to book flights, which can lead to longer waiting times.

“Airlines have cut everything so far that there’s little flexibility to recover during severe weather emergencies,’’ said Henry Harteveldt, an airline industry analyst with Forrester Research.

Over the past few days, thousands of passengers have been directed to contact airlines by phone — instead of crowding airport ticket counters — to reschedule flights that were canceled due to the nor’easter that hit New England the day after Christmas.

But because of the unusually high volume of calls — due in part to the busy holiday travel week and the fact the storm hit several major metropolitan areas — some travelers were left dangling on hold or were disconnected. Rebooking online is not recommended by some airlines because change fees can’t immediately be waived.

At Logan International Airport last night, the majority of flights to and from New York were canceled, and Logan was experiencing a few delays, but most connections were back to normal.

JetBlue’s two biggest operations are at Logan and at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York — both hit hard by the storm — so its system has been strained by the influx of calls.

On top of that, JetBlue canceled all its flights out of JFK after 8 p.m. yesterday because of delays and poor runway conditions.

“Bottom line: The system is currently overloaded,’’ said JetBlue spokesman Mateo Lleras, who said the phone system is supposed to transfer calls to a hold queue, but if the transfer doesn’t work after a few attempts, it drops the call.

Lleras declined to give call volume numbers but said the airline had added phone lines and staffers to handle the onslaught. “What we’re asking our customers to do is be patient, keep trying,’’ he said.

JetBlue passengers weren’t the only ones having problems.

Alexandra Fischer spent nine hours trying to get through to Virgin America after her Monday night flight from Boston to San Francisco was canceled. Each time she called, she was disconnected after a few minutes.

“Literally all we did Monday was try to find another flight,’’ said Fischer, who was visiting in-laws in Essex. She and her husband finally secured a flight for tomorrow on Delta Air Lines — sooner than the Jan. 5 flight Virgin offered.

“Our call center was inundated with calls, and some guests unfortunately experienced issues and delays,’’ said a Virgin America spokeswoman, Abby Lunardini. She added that the airline double-staffed its call center through Monday night and into yesterday; as of early evening the wait times were less than 10 minutes.

Passengers on Continental Airlines and American Airlines were also being hung up on, said Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge, which has been helping travelers reschedule their trips.

“There’s just tremendous volume that needs to be dealt with,’’ he said. “It’s brutal.’’

Continental and American did not immediately return calls seeking comment last night.

JetBlue, Logan’s biggest carrier, has been the top-rated low-cost airline for the past five years in J.D. Power and Associates’ annual North American Airline Satisfaction Survey, but it has had its share of blunders.

The airline suffered a public relations nightmare in 2007 when Cancun-bound travelers were trapped on the Kennedy International tarmac for eight hours during a storm. Such delays led the government to require airlines to allow passengers to disembark after three hours on the tarmac, or face penalties of $27,500 per passenger.

On Monday, however, several planes at Kennedy sat upward of seven hours on the tarmac waiting for gates to open, including a Cathay Pacific jet that sat for more than 10 hours. Spokesman Gus Whitcomb apologized and said the airline will try to figure out a way of compensating passengers.

A travel industry observer, Christopher Elliott, was surprised that JetBlue was not more prepared, given its track record.

“You’d think the last thing [JetBlue] would want is for another weather event to upset its passengers,’’ he said. “People shouldn’t be getting hung up on.’’

But Margaret Monroe was, and she embarked on a redialing war with JetBlue to get home to San Diego. After having her calls disconnected about every five minutes for two hours and listening to the same recording, she could recite JetBlue’s menu options by heart: “You can press three for a vacation getaway.’’ She finally got through, and after waiting on hold for 40 minutes, was able to rebook her flight out of Boston yesterday.

Douglas Hall of Rockport hit redial 20 times as the JetBlue phone system repeatedly hung up on him Monday as he tried to find a flight out of Tampa, Fla. After repeated attempts by him and his wife, and 45 minutes on hold, they managed to book a flight back to Boston tomorrow, out of Fort Myers, Fla.

“Once you get a human being on the phone, they’re great,’’ said Hall’s wife, Barbara Gavin, who was surprised to learn the woman at the other end of the line was working from home.

“It doesn’t do any good to get mad at some girl in her jammies answering the phone.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com, Alexa McMahon at amcmahon@globe.com.

Need to rebook a flight?
Most airlines have waived rebooking fees for passengers flying in and out of cities affected by the blizzard. Specific rules vary by carrier, but here are some tips that might make the process easier:

■ First try calling the airline. If you can’t get through, try again later. Call volume is generally heaviest first thing in the morning, so you may have better luck at odd hours. Calls are starting to decline, so it may be easier to get through later in the week. But don’t wait too long: Airlines are only allowing passengers to rebook until a certain date.

■ Try Twitter or Facebook. Passengers can reach airlines through their Twitter or Facebook accounts. While you may not be able to rebook this way, some people have gotten in touch with the airline this way.

■ Rebook online. This may be more complicated, however. Passengers can rebook flights on jetblue.com, for instance, but they have to pay for a new ticket and send the airline a receipt for a refund.

■ Go to the airport. If all else fails, passengers can go to the airport ticket counter to rebook.

Source: Globe research