The painful inconsistency of airline call center agents

I’ve briefly touched on this subject in previous posts, but having just freshly ended another call with the United Airlines “elite” 1K Desk, I feel compelled to make a unique post about the matter. My experiences have ranged from incredible – clone this agent – to – why did I bother calling.

The tried & true method for we uber frequent flyers is if you don’t get the desired result on the first call, politely hang up and call again. What must the occasional flyer experience? They don’t even connect with the “best” agents and will typically get offshore representatives in a country far, far away. I’m not necessarily dissing them, but I guarantee you many occasional flyers will take their word as gospel.

Here’s my story about last night. Next week I’m flying same-day to bring my boss’ pet back to her home in California. I’ve done this a half dozen times already and it has usually gone smoothly, but I’m always paranoid as to whether or not the agent booking the ticket has done it correctly. And so I call to reconfirm… and call again… and call again.

This trip got even more complicated as I was originally going to fly a cat in-cabin one-way (my usual experience), to changing it to a dog in the cargo hold. First, here’s the cat dialog:

Agent#1: Yes, Mr. Booth, the space is available and we have you confirmed with a pet-in-cabin one-way.

Me: Thank you, you’ve been incredibly efficient.

The following day I called to reconfirm:

Agent#2: No, I don’t see you have a pet-in-cabin reserved. Would you like to do that?

Me: Yes, just the one-way from XXX to XXX.

Agent#2: Oh yes, space is available… one moment. Okay, we have a small in-cabin pet confirmed and it will be $125 when you check-in at the counter.

Me: Thank you!

A few days goes by and my boss calls to advise she’d prefer me to fly the dog back instead of the cat. No problem. I call United that day and change out the pet in-cabin to a cargo-hold pet container. Here’s that conversation:

Me: Hello, I need to change the pet-in-cabin cat on flight XXX to reserve a spot in the cargo hold for a dog. She’s 90 pounds, it’ll be a large cage and we have her health papers.

Agent#3: Okay, I’ve deleted the in-cabin pet and reserved the space in the cargo hold.

Me: So you’ve confirmed I no longer have a pet in-cabin?

Agent#3: Yes, I’ve changed it out to show you’ll now be checking a cargo-hold pet and deleted record of the pet-in-cabin.

Me: Thank you… you’ve been wonderful.

Another few days have gone by and I again called to reconfirm. The reason I did it this time is because you’re not allowed to sit in an exit row seat with a pet-in-cabin and when I tried to select such a seat, the system refused it. Here’s how that call went:

Me: Hello, I’d like to reconfirm my reservation for next week on XXX.

Agent#4: Okay, I see it, how can I help you?

Me: Well, on the return portion I’m bringing a pet back… do you see that?

Agent#4: Yes, I see you have a large cargo-hold pet reserved for that leg.

Me: Great! I tried to select an exit row seat, but the online system refused it as if I was bringing a pet onboard. Can you check that?

Agent#4: Oh yes, I see you’re also bringing a pet-in-cabin from your origin, is that correct?

Me: No, I’m only flying a dog one-way on the return.

Agent#4: Okay. One moment.

Agent#4: I’ve deleted the outbound pet and can reserve your preferred seat of XX on the return.

Me: Thank you.

I actually have yet to check my reservation online or otherwise as to whether or not my new seat assignment in the exit row stuck. The point of this rambling post is about the call center experience. Some agents are stellar. Some agents are not. I carry a huge amount of sympathy for the general flying public who take their first call’s response as gospel, but cringe at the overall disparity of agent capabilities.

It’s just ridiculous what we have to go through as travelers and I now understand why so many complaints are lodged against the airlines. Could you imagine had I not been calling so consistently what might have happened at the airport(s)? The call center agents are not paid to care enough, but I expect more consistent and accurate service as a high-tier elite frequent flyer.

It’s like the old saying goes… “If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

When will airlines train and monitor their agents consistently?


  1. I have had such good luck with Continental Agents and such bad luck with United agents, that now even when I am booking on United, I call Contintental.

    I am waiting to see what the combined airline winds up with.

  2. m henner: complete opposite with me. I much prefer UA agents and hope that UA will not close the Philippines and India call centers. Those guys and gals can be very useful.

  3. @m henner: I’ve had terrible & great experiences with both UA & CO call centers.

    @Matthew: Yes… I will yield to the fact sometimes the inefficiencies can work to our favor, particularly when booking award travel.

  4. There is a high turnover in any call center. The one I worked at had a 40% turnover every year. That means that 40% of the agents leave every single year and a new crop of agents has to be trained to replace them. The sheer amount of info you have to learn is incredible. The scenario you outlined above happens very rarely, and the reps probably thought they were doing things the right way. They can’t cover every possible scenario in those training classes, and things slip through the cracks. That’s why you have to call back and double-check everything. Whenever you have unusual or special requests (when making travel arrangements, or even ordering in a restaurant), things are bound to go awry. Not everyone is at your level, so you’ll have to live in the world we have, not the perfect world that doesn’t exist.

    • Hi Arnold,
      I respect your input, but have to disagree that traveling with a pet happens “very rarely.” The elite desk especially should be staffed with the most qualified agents who know every process intimately, so I was surprised with my experience. I know we don’t live in a perfect world, but there is no reason that I should have to call so many times to check if my reservation information is correct.

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