Delta thinks of charging more for American voice on phone

The airline has surveyed some frequent fliers about adding a fee for talking to U.S. reservations agents but says it hasn't made up its mind.

Published July 28, 2004

Airlines have resorted to charging travelers for meals, paper tickets and extra luggage to bolster their sagging bottom lines.

Now, Delta Air Lines is pondering a new twist: charging a fee to send your call to a reservations agent in the United States instead of a call center in India.

Delta first floated the idea in an online survey of select frequent fliers this month. The airline hasn't tabulated the survey results, let alone decided on imposing the new fee, said spokeswoman Meaghan Glynn.

"We look into a lot of initiatives and ask a lot of questions," she said. "If this sees the light of day remains to be seen."

Providing customer service with offshore contractors is certainly nothing new, but charging extra to have calls taken by U.S.-based workers certainly would be.

Delta contracts with two companies, including Tampa-based Sykes Enterprises, to outsource three call centers to India with about 1,000 workers.

The nation's third largest airline saves about $25-million a year by redirecting "a percentage" of basic service calls from U.S. customers to the centers, said spokeswoman Peggy Estes.

Delta still employs more than 5,000 of its own reservations agents at eight U.S. reservations centers, including one in Tampa's West Shore district, and centers in Latin America and London. No Delta agents lost their jobs because of the outsourcing, Estes said.

But the service has spurred complaints from customers who say the contracted agents in India lack the training, language skills or knowledge of U.S. geography to handle certain types of transactions. The frequent flier Web site FlyerTalk.com has hosted online discussions with titles such as "India Call Center Incompetence."

Larry Fields of San Leandro, Calif., says he got frustrated trying to book a flight through an agent in India from the San Francisco Bay area to New York City using his Delta frequent flier miles.

He asked for options out of three bay area airports and the three metropolitan New York airports. The agent checked only flights between San Francisco International and JFK International, all with two stops each way. Fields says he ended up buying a ticket on another carrier.

"I get the impression they're not as well trained (as Delta agents)," he said. "They're trying to save money, but they're losing someone who might generate revenue in the future."

Delta called the outsourcing deal the first of its kind among U.S. airlines when the contracts were announced two years ago. But it's not alone in catching flak from unhappy customers.

Computermaker Dell last year stopped routing corporate customers to a technical support call center in India after a flood of complaints. Individual customers, meanwhile, got shifted to the lower-cost offshore centers.

Online lender E-Loan Inc. gave customers a choice last spring about who would process their applications. They could let the company use workers in India or wait as much as two days longer for U.S. workers to do the job.

Delta's idea of charging customers to talk to a U.S. call center is a new wrinkle - and not likely a popular one, said Randy Petersen, who runs FlyerTalk.com.

"I've not seen anything like that in customer service," he said. "That's the cost of business. If it's a trial balloon, I'd say it's more of a lead balloon."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.