On Hold for 12 Hours: Why Airline Wait Times Are Still So Excessive

Some customer service centers are logging hold times up to 704 minutes, but there are a few courses of action

A man holding his smartphone up to his face in the dark with the light shining. Here's why airline customer service hold times are still so long.
First your flight gets cancelled, then comes the hard part.

“We are experiencing higher-than-normal call volumes.”

If you’ve attempted to contact an airline customer service center any time in the past two years, you’re surely familiar with that line. You’re also presumably familiar with its implication, which is that you’re more than likely hours out from speaking with a representative. And by “hours,” I mean anywhere from two to north of seven.

In fact, back in May, Gary Leff of View From the Wing reported that some of Delta’s top frequent flyers were being asked to wait as long as 41 hours. As a follow up on Tuesday, Leff wrote that those same flyers are now being asked to wait 704 minutes — which is, in theory, progress from 2,460 minutes — though it’s still almost 12 hours and an egregiously long time to wait to speak to a customer service representative.

That said, Delta is hardly the only offender (though they do seem to be consistently the worst); American and Southwest have also continued to catch flak for their lack of accessible customer service solutions over the course of the pandemic. So what’s the deal?

Quite simply — mostly as a result of staffing shortages — airlines are cancelling and delaying flights at a record-breaking pace and customer service isn’t able to keep up. For context: U.S. airlines cancelled more than 2,800 flights over Memorial Day weekend. It stands to reason that most of the travelers on those flights, at some point, attempted to get in contact with customer service regarding rebooking and refunds. Assuming that the average passenger plane carries an average of 100 people, you’re looking at roughly 280,000 displaced passengers. That doesn’t take families into account, of course, but the point is that the number of travelers in need of help far exceeds the representatives available to provide it. And that’s all before the staffing shortages on the customer service side of things have been considered.

So what can you do to not have to wait on a phone for 12 hours to speak to someone? Download the airline’s app. Not only are you likely to find the answers you’re looking for there (rebooking options, etc.), but most apps also have a chat feature (though, obviously, chat wait times are also known to be excessive). And if that still doesn’t work — as Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes told The Washington Post — take it to social media (though we would implore you to exercise some discretion there…or at least not be annoying). Keyes also recommends trying international call centers, Canada and Mexico among them, instead.

For its part, Delta denies that the wait times are actually as long as disgruntled flyers purport them to be. But should you run into a particularly long wait, Delta CEO Ed Bastian has offered a very simple — though questionably effective — alternative: “Just email me, I’ll take care of it.”


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