Passengers are lashing out at airlines for poor customer service after this week's storm on the East Coast left thousands stranded and unable to get through to reservation agents.
Critics are incensed over what they say is the airlines' effort to blame everything on the weather and take themselves off the hook.
"We don't blame the airlines or airports for bad weather, but it's their responsibility to be prepared," said Brandon Macsata of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. "The airlines just seem to be saying, 'Suck it up.' People are tired of sucking it up."
Travelers stranded by the blizzard have been calling airlines to rebook flights in huge numbers, but the airlines have fewer reservations agents to take their calls.
For example, Continental cut 600 call-center jobs — about one-fourth of its reservations workers — in February. A few months before that, it closed a center in Florida and cut 500 jobs, and American Airlines cut a similar number when it closed a center in Connecticut. Other airlines closed call centers throughout the past decade, chopping hundreds of jobs at a time.
The airlines cut staff because so many people now book tickets online. The airlines themselves encouraged the trend by charging customers a fee to book over the phone.
It works well most of the time. But when storms hit, hordes of airline customers can wait on hold for hours or simply be told to call back later, as happened to anyone dialing Delta, American or Continental earlier this week.
US Airways imposed mandatory overtime for customer-service workers. American Airlines said it asked people to cut short vacations and extended the hours of part-time workers at call centers and airports.
"It would have been nice to have more people at the airport in the teeth of the storm, but it was difficult to get our people to the airport," said Ed Martelle, a spokesman for American.
Martelle said call volume spiked to 220 percent of normal on Monday, and however many people were at the call centers — he didn't have a figure — weren't enough. Service appeared to be working normally by Wednesday.
Travelers, many of them visibly exhausted after living at the airport for two or three days, said they were unable to get basic information from airline employees.
"I waited four hours in the queue just to speak to someone — just to get the news that I have to wait a few more days," said Tommy Mokhtari, who was stranded at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport while trying to get home to Dubai. "They really need to have a backup plan.
Rinia Graaven of the Netherlands slept on a cot at JFK for two nights and was told she couldn't get a flight to visit family in Miami until after New Year's Day. She didn't have her luggage — no change of clothes or a way to freshen up.
"Nobody helps you," she said. "All they tell you is, 'Stand in line.' For what? It's not fair. It's not nice."
Some intrepid travelers had better luck calling travel agents back home instead of dealing with airline agents standing a few feet away.
As they cut call center jobs in recent years, the airlines also eliminated flights and grounded planes to meet the reduced demand for travel during the recession. Those leaner schedules helped the airlines earn handsome profits this summer but left them with less capacity to handle the backlog of passengers stranded in New York and Philadelphia by this week's storm.
Planes operated by Cathay Pacific and British Airways, full of tired passengers, spent several hours on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Monday night. Airport officials said the airlines had taken off for New York without first ensuring that they had a gate assignment after landing.
British Airways spokesman John Lampl acknowledged that a flight carrying 300 passengers and a crew of 16 left London on Monday night without a JFK unloading gate assignment, but he insisted the crew had no indication they wouldn't be able to dock at a terminal. "Normally a gate is available," he said.
U.S. airlines operating domestic flights can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for tarmac delays longer than three hours, but the rule doesn't apply to international flights or foreign airlines. Passenger-rights groups are lobbying the U.S. Transportation Department to extend the penalties to all flights to and from the U.S., but the proposal is opposed by the International Air Transport Association, which represents foreign airlines.
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