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Airlines focus on rebooking flights after super storm Sandy

As calls pour in from travelers whose flights were canceled by the storm, airlines deploy extra workers to handle customer service. The cancellations affected as many as 2 million passengers.

October 31, 2012|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • Some passengers are still stranded Wednesday at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, which has resumed some service after the storm.
Some passengers are still stranded Wednesday at New York’s John… (Mehdi Taamallah, AFP/Getty…)

After canceling more than 19,500 flights because of super storm Sandy, the nation's airlines have turned their focus to rebooking passengers on new flights, even as key East Coast airports continued to clear floodwaters.

Airlines have deployed hundreds of workers to answer phones to help rebook or cancel tickets for up to 2 million travelers whose flights were canceled by the storm, as well as answer calls from fliers making reservations for upcoming holiday travel.

Some fliers have enjoyed quick service.

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Ian Richer, a self-employed creative director from South Pasadena, said he had no trouble rebooking a United Airlines flight scheduled for Thursday from Los Angeles to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to visit his mother in Manhattan. He waited on the phone for only about five minutes.

"They were extremely helpful," he said of the airline staff. "They just said, 'Whatever you need.'"

But rescheduling flights was not so easy for others.

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Kairi Coleman, a teacher from Queens, N.Y., said he spent hours trying to get through to JetBlue Airways to find a flight back home from Florida, where he went last week to attend a wedding.

"It's a nightmare," he said. "That is the only way to describe it."

Coleman said he was originally scheduled to fly back to New York last Sunday, and the airline rebooked him on a Friday flight. He said he couldn't afford to spend a week away from his job, so he asked for a refund. After realizing he couldn't find another way home, Coleman called JetBlue again.

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But on almost every call to the airline, he said, he got a recording saying the call volume was heavy and to try back later. He finally got through by calling at 2:30 in the morning. Now he has a flight booked for next Sunday, a week after he was originally scheduled to return.

"This is ruining my life," Coleman complained, adding that he has been sleeping on his mother's couch.

When a flight is canceled, most airlines' reservation systems automatically rebook passengers on the next available flight. When that flight doesn't fit passengers' schedules, they often call the airlines directly to make different reservations.

Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation's airlines, estimated that the 19,500 flight cancellations since Saturday involved between 1.5 million and 2 million passengers.

To deal with such a huge volume of calls, representatives from JetBlue, United and American Airlines said they have redeployed extra workers to answer phones. United said it had reassigned 500 workers from various airports to help the effort at East Coast airports and opened a temporary customer service office in Illinois.

Most airlines have offered to waive rebooking fees and any increase in price for a new ticket. The terms vary by airline.

Some beleaguered fliers have looked for help from travel agents, who say they have seen an uptick in business in the last week. But travel agents say they too have been faced with wait times of 25 to 45 minutes on the phone with airline reservation agents.

"It's been horrific," said Jay Johnson, owner of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, who has put in long hours in the last few days helping his clients get into and out of East Coast cities. He said he spent two hours Wednesday trying to find a rental car to help a client drive out of New York.

"Pretty much everything has ground to a halt," he said.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced Wednesday that John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey were open for limited service. Most flights have resumed at airports in Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C.

But LaGuardia Airport in New York, where runways were inundated with several feet of water, remained closed. "We'll continue to build up our service until we're operating as normal," New York-based JetBlue said in a statement.

The advantage of turning to a travel agent is that agents don't mind waiting on the phone with an airline to make a new reservation, said Vicky Mary, president of Victoria Travel in Cincinnati.

Plus, she said, travel agents have access to a computer listing of all available flights. "This is why they pay us," Mary said.

In addition to the calls from passengers whose flights were canceled, Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Travel Leaders in Plymouth, Minn., said travel agents are also getting calls to book flights for the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We are already seeing a higher-than-normal booking volume for Thanksgiving," he said.

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