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Hurricane Irene: How Fast Did Your Airline Respond?

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Hurricane Irene didn’t only empty the streets last week, it also emptied the skies.

The country’s major airlines were under immense pressure trying to re-book flights for anxious customers as some 12,000 flights were canceled, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.com. But the length of time it took to get through to airlines varied dramatically: It took just under three minutes to get through to U.S. Airways by phone, but it took more than ninety minutes for American Airlines, according to a new survey, StellaService.com, a site that rates companies’ customer service performance. Tweeting was not the ideal way to contact most airlines. Delta Airlines responded to all their Tweets, on average, in 14 seconds, but Tweets at other airlines went unreturned.

Industry representatives say airlines have made themselves more accessible during crisis situations. Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, says he doesn’t comment on individual surveys, but says airlines constantly updated their social networking sites and websites as soon as flight-change information was available. He says many airlines were also proactive and reached out to travelers via email, and added extra staff to field telephone calls from worried passengers. “Airlines started notifying passengers of operational changes and rebooking policies several days before the hurricane made landfall,” he says.

Here are survey’s results:

Average call-hold times for 8 calls during Hurricane Irene:

1.         U.S. Airways: 2 minutes, 38 seconds.

2.         Southwest Airlines: 8 minutes, 10 seconds.

3.         Continental Airlines: 8 minutes, 15 seconds.

4.         United Airlines: 12 minutes, 4 seconds.

5.         Spirit Airlines: 24 minutes, 7 seconds.

6.         JetBlue Airways: 24 minutes, 16 seconds.

7.         AirTran: 27 minutes, 52 seconds.

8.         Frontier Airlines: 29 minutes, 54 seconds.

9.         Delta Airlines: 33 minutes, 43 seconds.

10.       American Airlines: 1 hour, 32 minutes, 39 seconds.

(The calls were made from 9am to 6:30pm EST on Friday, Aug. 26.)

Average response to 12 Tweets during Hurricane Irene:

1.          Delta Airlines: 14 seconds; responded to 100% of Tweets

2.          Frontier Airlines: 4 minutes, 4 seconds; responded to 100% of Tweets

3.         JetBlue: 11 seconds; responded to 83% of Tweets

4.         Southwest Airlines: 6 minutes, 12 seconds; responded to 83% of Tweets

5.        United/Continental Airlines joint Twitter handle: responded to 58% of
Tweets

6.         Spirit Airlines: 1 minute, 10 seconds; responded to 42% of Tweets

7.         US Airways: 24 seconds; responded to 17% of Tweets

*          AirTran: No response

(Tweets were directed from 12am to 12pm EST on Friday, Aug. 26.)

However, two airlines alleged Tuesday that the survey was inaccurate. United Airlines spokesman Rahsaan Johnson tells Pay Dirt that it received almost the same 12 messages to a defunct Continental Twitter account, and responded to 6 out of 12 of those from its active United Airlines Twitter account; a spokesman for StellaService confirmed that the company received responses from the defunct Continental, but didn’t include those responses in the survey.

Similarly, American Airlines spokesman Ryan Mikolasik says the company handled over 100,000 calls on Friday, and customers waited an average of 21 minutes. American Airlines’ response time for AAdvantage Executive Platinum, Platinum and Gold customers averaged from 30 seconds to less than three minutes per call, he adds. Mikolasik says the airline received 78 Tweets Thursday through Sunday, responded to 46, and says many didn’t require action.

For their part, the airlines say they pulled out all the stops to be there for passengers. Southwest spokeswoman Christi McNeill says the airline carries more passengers than any other carrier. “We do our best to maintain quick and thorough customer service,” she says. “The hurricane impacted a high number of Southwest airports and resulted in nearly 1,000 cancellations.” It has over 1 million Twitter followers. U.S. Airways spokesman Andrew Christie says its 32,000 employees worked “around the clock” to care for its customers online, on the phone and at airports. It has nearly 159,000 Twitter followers.

But not all carriers had the same pressures. New York-based JetBlue canceled 1,252 flights last weekend. Because it’s based on the East Coast, according to spokesman Mateo Lleras, its operations are “heavily skewed” over the Northeast and East Coasts, receiving a much higher amount of flight cancelations. He says he expects the Twitter response rate was over 83%. But JetBlue has over 1.6 million Twitter followers, far more than United/Continental Twitter’s account, which has about 39,000 followers, and did not respond by Twitter, according to the survey. United Airlines’ Johnson says it was “largely successful” given the number of travelers who were disrupted, and says the airlines did reply to 200 passenger questions over Twitter.

The other airlines on the list did not respond to request for comment.

Pay Dirt readers, does this tally with your own experiences last week?

Updated at 5.11pm EST Tuesday to include responses from United and American Airlines.

Updated at 2.55pm EST Tuesday, Sept. 6 as StellaService changed its Twitter result for United to 58% and deleted American Airlines from the results as it says the secret shoppers were Tweeting an inactive American Airlines Twitter account.

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    • Janelle – Last week really was the pefcert week for the Outer Banks. The weather and the water was the best we’ve ever experienced there too! We evacuated last year due to Hurricane Earl and luckily, while some damage was done, it wasn’t as bad as they anticipated. Hoping the same for Irene and that all the residents, vacationers and beautiful homes are safe and sound this weekend!

    • Are you wanting to book dosmitec flights in India or in the U.S? If in India, you can check out the discount airlines such as Jet Airways and Kingfisher. In the U.S., it depends on where you want to fly as a lot of discount airline do not have as large of a network as the legacy airlines. You can visit JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America, Spirit, Frontier, Sun Country, AirTran and Allegiant. You will have to go to each airline’s website to look. Again without mentioning where you want to fly from and where you want go, we cannot give you a specific answer.

    • I do not believe that American Airlines has any human employees other than the flight crews.

    • US Airways: 1st attempt – 4 hours on hold; 2nd attempt on the next day 60 minutes. Our flight was on Aug. 28th, Sunday. We started calling on Friday and after being on hold for more than 4 hours, we just hang up. On the following, it took us about 60 minutes!!!

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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