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Traveler complaints increase as Hawaii tourism rebounds

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Hawaiian Airlines and other carriers throughout the U.S. are experiencing difficulties and issuing apologies about lengthy call center times and other customer serv­ice issues. Above, travelers waited in line Saturday outside the Hawaiian Airlines ticketing area at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Hawaiian Airlines and other carriers throughout the U.S. are experiencing difficulties and issuing apologies about lengthy call center times and other customer serv­ice issues. Above, travelers waited in line Saturday outside the Hawaiian Airlines ticketing area at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Hawaiian Airlines and other carriers have issued apologies about how they are responding to a faster-than-expected domestic tourism recovery. Above, travelers lined up Saturday outside the Hawaiian Airlines ticketing area at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Hawaiian Airlines and other carriers have issued apologies about how they are responding to a faster-than-expected domestic tourism recovery. Above, travelers lined up Saturday outside the Hawaiian Airlines ticketing area at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

Hawaiian Airlines has dramatically improved its financial performance this year, but the carrier has had difficulty managing the negative impact that rebounding U.S. travel 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 who phone Hawaiian’s customer service call center are still experiencing lengthy waits. Wait times were an hour and 15 minutes Friday afternoon.

Hawaiian spokesman Alex Da Silva said: “We have also substantially reduced phone wait times by staffing up our call center; however, due to continued pent-up demand for summer travel, we recognize some callers may still experience longer hold times at peak times of the day.

“We appreciate our guests’ patience and are working as quickly as possible to help everyone who needs to speak with our team members.”

Da Silva said the company has addressed issues that were causing errors on its website last month, and invested in additional infrastructure to keep things running smoothly.

It’s not just Hawaii’s hometown carrier that is experiencing difficulties and issuing apologies about how it is responding to a faster-than- expected domestic tourism recovery. When the pandemic hit, the number of people flying in the U.S. plunged below 100,000 on some days, a level not seen in decades. This year it has climbed 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 domestic seats into the market. Carriers scheduled more than a million U.S. nonstop 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, almost a 23% increase from July 2019. They’ve planned for 1.1 million seats in August, a more than 28% increase from August 2019. A 3% increase is planned for September, a 10% rise in October and a 16% gain in November.

Da Silva said that in March 2020 Hawaiian’s call center was overwhelmed by cancellations. He said that since this March the carrier has been challenged by the volume of people who want to re-book.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries said that once the tourists get to Hawaii, there are also operational issues at airports and other places that are experiencing growing pains.

“The collapse itself was painful, and the reopening and relaunch is uneven. It lacks uniformity. It is not elegant. But eventually, it will stabilize itself,” De Fries said.

De Fries said Hawaii’s airports weren’t designed to do what the tourism industry and travelers are asking them to do.

“I was in Kahului Saturday, and I waited an hour and a half (in the airport line). It’s an impossible situation, right, they serpentined the line through what feels like half the airport square footage,” he said. “But I travel often enough interisland to see that they are constantly working to find a way to improve it.”

De Fries said few people realize that the economic collapse injured Hawaii’s tourism system, and the industry requires time to heal before getting back to full capacity.

“If you turn off the house plumbing 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,” De Fries said. “You have to allow the system to clean itself.”

De Fries said he advises travelers to “do their research and not make impulsive decisions about travel.”

“If you don’t do your research, and have the mindset that part of your experience could be incomplete, then you run the risk of being extremely disappointed,” he said.

To be sure, the Hawaii Visitors &Convention Bureau has seen complaints mount during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, HVCB said, it received about 15-20 complaints and inquiries from visitors a month. During the pandemic, HVCB said, it saw monthly complaints and inquiries explode to 24,000 calls and upward of 20,000 emails.

Most were about the state’s travel entry program Safe Travels, so they’re starting to decline as more options are available to visitors.

Still, HVCB said it is trying to improve outcomes by sending regular messaging to the airlines, travel trade, meeting planners, travel media, hotels and other partners about changes in Hawaii’s travel restrictions.

The airline industry, as well as the hospitality industry, got caught flatfooted during the pandemic, said Brad DiFiore, co-founder and managing director of Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting, which provides air service development consulting.

“Part of it is that we are just at this super peak. Summer travel demand is almost as high as it was in 2019 from the domestic market, so there are just as many people traveling, but there are a lot more making changes,” DiFiore said. “People are sort of resigned to the fact that they’ll be waiting. Hotels are having the same issues; it’s not just the airlines.”

DiFiore said the customer service challenges are more urgent for the companies that downsized more aggressively during the economic uncertainty as the pandemic unfurled last year. DiFiore said those companies are now trying to scale up but that takes time as customer service personnel often require specialized training.

Another issue is that since airlines relaxed their flight change policies, consumers are calling to make changes in higher volumes than they were before the pandemic, he said.

DiFiore said some airlines are also experiencing challenges getting enough planes or trained pilots to operate their schedules, which has led to flight cancellations and in turn exacerbated the strain on customer service personnel.

American, United, Delta, Hawaiian and many other carriers have been in the news for extended wait times.

Air Travel Consumer Reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection show customers, in general, have been less happy during the pandemic.

In 2020 the office reported 102,550 complaints, the highest number on record by far. Complaints last year were up more than 568% from 2019 when there were only 15,342 complaints.

In May DOT received 3,539 complaints, down from 21,951 in May 2020. May was the most recent month of data available. During May, 1,216 complaints involved U.S. airlines. Of the 28 U.S. carriers that DOT received complaints about in May, Hawaiian was ranked at No. 9 with just 33 complaints, as compared with United, which was No. 1 with 263 complaints.

Da Silva said Hawaiian’s wait times are not interfering with the company’s overall recovery. However, he said, “We are pleased to be improving because we know how frustrating the long hold times can be for our guests.”

Da Silva said Hawaiian’s issues have been improving every week, and the company expects hold times to shorten even more as it continues to staff up its call center.

It’s the same story at 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 expects to hire 4,000 to 5,000 workers this year. Delta plans to add 1,300 reservations agents by this fall to reduce long waits on hold for customers who call the airline. It’s also adding customer service, cargo and airport workers and plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots before next summer.

Ed Bastian addressed the carrier’s wait time challenges in an email to SkyMiles members.

“After a year of lockdowns, it’s been heartening to see so many of you returning to the skies this summer and reclaiming your lives,” Bastian said in the email. “While we are pleased to welcome you back, the unexpected pace of the return of our customers has resulted in some unforeseen challenges as we ramp up to meet demand and handle a record-breaking level of calls.”

American Airlines is canceling extended leaves for about 3,300 flight attendants and telling them to come 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 leaves of absence to flight attendants and other employees last year to cut costs while it struggled with a steep drop in travel caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Other airlines did the same thing. Now they need people.

The reasons behind the worker shortage are hotly debated. Some employers in Hawaii and throughout the rest of the nation have blamed the federal government’s extra $300 per week in unemployment aid. Hospitality unions, like Unite Here Local 5, have expressed concern that some companies have used the pandemic to cut jobs and pay. Some visitor industry workers who abruptly lost their jobs a year ago have moved on to new careers and aren’t coming back.

“The pandemic caused some people to reevaluate what they want to do,” Da Silva said. “But that hasn’t led to any operational issues for us. The second quarter was technically a loss, but it was much better. With the demand, we have started to repair the business and bring people back. I expect it will be much better this fall as long as things progress and the delta variant (of COVID-19) is contained.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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