With airlines, be firm, but in nice way

When something goes awry, being polite increases your chances of getting results, a former staffer says.

Published September 6, 2006

Suppose you're running late to the airport and can't reach the ticket counter by the deadline for checking your luggage. Will you end up paying a change fee to take the next flight?

Maybe the airline messed up. Can you wrangle a few hundred frequent-flier miles or a ticket voucher out of the airline that made you miss an important meeting because its plane broke?

The first gate keeper you meet might be someone like Mike Maharrey. I say someone like him because Maharrey left his job as a reservations agent at Delta Air Lines in Tampa about a month ago.

But he was kind enough to share some insights into what makes people working the phones in reservations centers tick.

His advice: Be nice. Be prepared to make your case. And be persistent without being abusive. More details to come.

First, you need to know a little about the job. On his eight-hour shift, Maharrey handled between 60 and 80 calls. The airline allowed an average downtime of 26 seconds between each call, he says.

When he worked general sales, about half the callers wanted to book tickets or find out prices. The rest asked about policies like how many bags you could check.

The dumbest question: "Can I ship my car on the airplane?" When Maharrey joked, "Only if you take it apart," the man insisted he was dead serious.

He preferred working on the line for frequent fliers. They understood the ins and outs of air travel. Their requests -booking the most efficient, multistop trips or searching for flights with the best chances for an upgrade to first class -were more interesting, he says.

Still, barely a day went by without at least one angry customer ruining it. At 39 years old and earning $1,600 a month after a year on the job, Maharrey decided to pursue a college degree.

He didn't leave with hard feelings. He credits the carrier for letting agents use their judgment to resolve complaints as long as they balanced the interests of the customer with those of the company.

"The first thing people need to understand is that when I say I can't do something, I'm not making it up," Maharrey says. That included finding lost bags, which was handled by another department.

Airline rules dictate that customers who miss a flight because they're late -- for whatever reason - must pay a change fee and a higher ticket price if the original fare isn't available.

But the change fee, usually $50 per round-trip ticket, can be waived at the discretion of the agent, says Maharrey. "Be courteous and understand the person you're talking to is a person," he says. "I didn't have a problem with a person being angry. Just don't be angry with me."

If the problem is the airline's fault, agents have leeway over compensation. A flight delayed by four hours or more because of a mechanical problem or late flight crew was typically worth a $100 travel voucher, he says.

Don't be afraid to ask for more or request to talk with a supervisor. In his center, the "supervisor" wasn't a boss but another agent authorized to make fare changes or higher voucher and frequent-flier mile offers, Maharrey says.

One last thing to remember: Whatever dealings you have with a reservation or ticket agent could end up on a computer record. Don't even think about double-dipping on compensation for a bad trip.

Besides Delta, Northwest and Continental operate reservations centers in Tampa.

* * *

My Aug. 23 column about how travelers are learning new tricks to deal with the revised carry-on rules drew a couple of calls from shipping stores. They questioned whether a local frequent flier should have been allowed to send his shaving cream and lotion ahead via overnight express.

The answer is no. Overnight air services will not knowingly accept items that are flammable shaving lotion or pressurized (shaving cream in cans).

The reason: Overnight packages get knocked around conveyor belts and dropped in bins on their trip through sorting centers. UPS won't accept materials that could get damaged and either explode or feed a fire inside an airplane, a spokeswoman said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.