Hawaiian Airlines has significantly improved its financial performance this year, but the carrier has struggled to manage the negative impact the U.S. travel rebound has had on its call center wait times.
It’s been about 10 months since Safe Travels, Hawaii’s traveler entry program, reopened tourism to the Hawaiian Islands. However, travelers calling the Hawaii customer service call center still face long waits. Wait times were one hour and 15 minutes on Friday afternoon.
Hawaiian spokesman Alex Da Silva said: “We have also significantly reduced phone wait times by staffing our call center; however, due to continued pent-up demand for summer travel, we recognize that some callers may still experience longer wait times during peak times of the day.
“We appreciate our customers’ patience and are working as quickly as possible to help anyone who needs to speak with our team members.”
Da Silva said the company fixed the issues causing errors on its website last month and invested in additional infrastructure to keep things running smoothly.
It’s not just the Hawaii hometown carrier struggling and apologizing for how it’s responding to a faster-than-expected domestic tourism recovery. When the pandemic hit, the number of people traveling to the United States fell below 100,000 on some days, a level not seen in decades. This year, it has gone from less than 700,000 a day in early February to 2 million a day in July.
Demand for Hawaii has prompted carriers to add an unprecedented number of interior seats to the market. The carriers scheduled more than one million nonstop U.S. seats to Hawaii in June, a 14.3% increase over the same period in 2019, which was a record year. They offered nearly 1.2 million seats in July, an increase of nearly 23% from July 2019. They forecast 1.1 million seats in August, an increase of more than 28% from to August 2019. A 3% increase is forecast for September, a 10% increase in October and a 16% gain in November.
Da Silva said that in March 2020, the Hawaii call center was overwhelmed with cancellations. He said since last March the carrier has been challenged by the volume of people wanting to rebook.
Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries said that once tourists arrive in Hawaii, there are also operational issues at airports and other locations that are experiencing growing pains.
“The collapse itself was painful, and the reopening and re-launching is uneven. It lacks uniformity. It’s not elegant. But eventually it will stabilize,” De Fries said.
De Fries said Hawaii’s airports weren’t designed to do what the tourism industry and travelers ask them to do.
“I was in Kahului on Saturday, and I waited an hour and a half (in the airport queue). It’s an impossible situation, okay, they snaked the line through what looks like half the area of the airport,” he said. “But I travel between the islands often enough to see that they are constantly working to find a way to improve it.”
De Fries said few people realize that the economic collapse has hurt Hawaii’s tourism system and the industry needs time to heal before it returns to full capacity.
“If you turn off the plumbing in the house for 15 months, when you finally turn it back on, you don’t want to drink the first water. The first water is not indicative of the quality of the water source,” said De Fries. “You must allow the system to clean itself.”
De Fries said he advises travelers to “do their research and not make impulsive travel decisions.”
“If you don’t do your research and think some part of your experience might be incomplete, you run the risk of being extremely disappointed,” he said.
Certainly, the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau has seen complaints mount during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the HVCB said, it received about 15 to 20 visitor complaints and inquiries per month. During the pandemic, the HVCB said, it has seen monthly complaints and inquiries explode to 24,000 calls and more than 20,000 emails.
Most were for the state’s Safe Travels travel entry program, so they’re starting to decline as more options become available to visitors.
Still, HVCB said it tries to improve results by sending regular messages to airlines, travel professionals, meeting planners, travel media, hotels and other partners about changes in Hawaii travel restrictions.
The airline industry, as well as the hospitality industry, has been caught off guard during the pandemic, said Brad DiFiore, co-founder and managing director of Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting, which provides airline services development advice. .
“It’s partly because we’re just at this super high. Demand for summer travel is almost as high as it was in 2019 domestically, so there are just as many people traveling, but there are a lot more making changes,” DiFiore said. “People are kind of resigned to the fact that they’re going to wait. Hotels have the same problems; it’s not just the airlines.
DiFiore said customer service challenges are more pressing for companies that have downsized more aggressively during economic uncertainty as the pandemic unfolded over the past year. DiFiore said these companies are now trying to grow, but it takes time because customer service staff often need specialized training.
Another problem is that since airlines have relaxed their flight change policies, consumers are calling for changes in higher volumes than they were before the pandemic, he said.
DiFiore said some airlines are also having trouble getting enough planes or trained pilots to handle their schedules, which has led to flight cancellations and added pressure on customer service staff.
American, United, Delta, Hawaiian and many other carriers have made headlines for extended wait times.
Air travel consumer reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Office show that customers, in general, have been less satisfied during the pandemic.
In 2020, the office reported 102,550 complaints, the highest number ever. Last year, complaints increased by more than 568% compared to 2019, when there were only 15,342 complaints.
In May, the DOT received 3,539 complaints, compared to 21,951 in May 2020. May was the most recent month for which data was available. During the month of May, 1,216 complaints concerned American airlines. Of the 28 U.S. carriers the DOT received complaints about in May, Hawaiian was ranked No. 9 with just 33 complaints, compared to United, which was No. 1 with 263 complaints.
Da Silva said Hawaii’s wait times were not interfering with the overall business recovery. However, he said: “We are happy to improve as we know how frustrating long wait times can be for our customers.”
Da Silva said Hawaii’s problems are improving every week, and the company expects wait times to shorten even further as it continues to staff its call center.
It’s the same story with most other carriers. Last week, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser spent more than two hours on hold with Delta Air Lines.
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said this week that his airline plans to hire 4,000 to 5,000 workers this year. Delta plans to add 1,300 reservation agents by this fall to reduce long wait times for customers calling the airline. It is also adding customer service, cargo and airport employees and plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots before next summer.
Ed Bastian addressed the carrier’s wait time issues in an email to SkyMiles members.
“After a year of confinement, it has been heartwarming to see so many of you return to the skies this summer and resume your lives,” Bastian said in the email. “While we are delighted to welcome you back, the unexpected pace of our customers’ return has resulted in unforeseen challenges as we prepare to meet demand and handle a record level of calls.”
American Airlines is canceling extended furloughs for about 3,300 flight attendants and telling them to get back to work in time for the holiday season. And American plans to hire 800 new flight attendants by March, according to an airline executive.
American offered long-term furloughs to flight attendants and other employees last year to cut costs as it battled a sharp drop in travel caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Other airlines have done the same. Now they need people.
The reasons for the labor shortage are hotly debated. Some employers in Hawaii and the rest of the country blamed the federal government’s extra $300 a week in unemployment assistance. Hospitality unions, such as Unite Here Local 5, have expressed concern that some companies have used the pandemic to cut jobs and pay. Some workers in the tourism industry who lost their jobs abruptly a year ago have turned to new careers and are not coming back.
“The pandemic made some people reassess what they wanted to do,” Da Silva said. “But it didn’t cause any operational problems for us. The second quarter was technically a loss, but it was much better. With the demand, we started fixing the business and bringing people back. I expect it to be much better this fall as long as things progress and the delta variant (of COVID-19) is contained.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.