a man wearing a mask on a plane

Press 1 to be frustrated, and 2 to be even more frustrated.

As many positive signs emerge that covid-19 is being managed in most of the world, airlines are tuning up their marketing machines with promotions and messages to get people back into the skies. They want new bookings, and they want them now. There’s just one problem: many of us had bookings, which we’d either like to change or cancel, and they’re not so interested in those.

Press 1 to make a new booking, and 2 to change an existing booking. It’s fair to assume that by “change”, many of the people pressing 2 right now are looking to cancel and get their refunds initiated. Not all, but many. As one of those hoping to do the latter, and simply change a booking within the guidelines to a safer date, I pressed 2.

“Due to an extremely high call volume, we cannot take your call, goodbye”. The line automatically disconnected.

I went through this exercise at various times of days, for a few days of the week, not wishing to make the airlines job of securing new bookings any more difficult than it already is. But then I said you know what, I’m a customer, I’m one of the relative few who already dumped new money in your business during lockdown, to the tune of a few thousand in new tickets, and not taking my call is unacceptable.

So what did I do? I lied. It worked, over and over again.

a man sitting in an airplaneNo more pressing 2, with the honest answer that I was making changes to a booking. Time to press 1, and see where it takes me. Of course, it took me to an agent, fairly promptly.

Testing this across a variety of airlines and speaking to many readers, the only semi effective way to get in touch with an airline right now, other than social media, is to lie. Just tell them you want to spend money, you can go right through. Looking to get yours back after 100’s of days of waiting, or desperate to make a crucial change? We can’t take your call.

It’s the wrong message to send from people desperate for new money. I, like most customers, tend to consider how I was treated the last time before making a booking for a new time. If only they weren’t so uniformly awful, I might have an easier time picking my next air carrier.

Sadly, it’s all due to the vicious cycle of covid-19 and aggressive businesses which refuse to lose a dime, for anything, even if only temporarily. At airlines around the world, support staff for call centers and customer service were among the first let go. Executives, of course, barely took a pay cut, if one at all. Sure, there’s social media to get in touch, but it can’t solve every problem, and even Twitter can take days to get a response.

In other words, if there were 1000 people to answer your call before, there are about 50 now, and more people are calling than ever. Anything to save a buck, right?

The games airlines played with refunds or cancellation rights, like United reinventing the definition of a cancelled flight were bad enough, but being unreachable without significant effort – literally using automated machines to hang up on customers –  or re-coding websites to remove refund options – is just terrible business.

If you’ve got business to settle with an airline, the advice is simple – just lie, tell them you want a new ticket and then when you finally get in touch with someone, handle your business. Just do it quickly, so someone else can too…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Oh how o recognise that pre recorded message ( BA)

    That said I think I have been lucky. 4 trips rebooked or cancelled ( although one of those has had, I kid you not, EIGHT changes to the original itinerary) the longest I’ve waited is 42 in minutes with the vast majority of those being a quarter of that time.

    I did exactly the same experiment myself back in April but with BA, at that time, it seemed to make little difference so I just proceed as normal depending on whether I’m changing or making a new booking.

    AA ( 2 trips canx, 1 adjusted 3 times) it’s definitely been a case of needing to lie to get through although as I’m calling from the UK I can’t say whether their telephony system is downgrading my call as it’s from outside of the US.

  2. Delta seems to be making headway. Even their phone lines are “only” a 15-20 minute callback. Their IM’s usually provide an agent quickly. My theory is that when this mess started they simply refunded or changed with almost no questions, qualifications or delays. Not in every case of course, but my experiences with them as a lowly Platinum have been very good. Anyway, those early actions might’ve unclogged the pipeline so to speak to allow a better experience now.

  3. As a travel agent, I’ve been doing this for years.

    Airlines disgust me actually.

  4. I didn’t even get the opportunity to lie: BA’s AnswerTron3000™ cut me off at every turn. So I played a game of cancellation chicken (half of my itinerary was still scheduled) and hit them up on Twitter instead. Which is also semi-automated. A guessing game of “what input does it expect because it ain’t giving you no clue or options” ensued. It worked on the second time around and I had my refund in around a week.

  5. Trying to contact On The Beach is more than impossible, messages on every social media and 2 hours on hold on the phone. I got to caller number 6 with a 3 minute waiting and within seconds bumped back to 70 minutes waiting time.
    I am going to a destination that has not been lifted on FCO lift and my flights have been significantly changed. And no one has contacted me to tell me about flight change.

  6. My experience has been exactly the same, only way to get through is to press 1 for a new booking. With several thousand dollars of my money being held in ‘credits’, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect to use it.
    Also, let’s not forget these airlines had no problem taking billions in bailouts (corporate welfare), but now filling planes to the gills and furloughing employees. Sorry, not sorry!

  7. I was actually surprised with Virgin Atlantic. I expected to wait on hold for hours, only to have to sit for 15 mins. The agent was able to help me rebook, even though it was an “iffy case” (They moved my flight a day forward, and I’d now decided I needed to stay an additional week to get things finished, so I figured to give it a try). 15 mins. on hold, 15 mins. to get my new date and seat all settled up, and I was off the phone happy and all fixed up.

    This is why I keep flying Virgin…

  8. This is grounds for lawsuit accusing the airline(s) of deceptive business practices. Trial lawyers will have a field day with this.

    Before the shills start their shrill routine- saying you can’t respond in a timely manner to an explicit request to pay their creditors (and not responding) with the clear consequence of retaining the said monies is straight-up fraud. If you don’t believe it, try the “my phone was out of charge for 3 weeks” defense against your mortgage company. Good luck.

  9. They always lie about the reason for any delay, both on the ground and when in the air. Usually, they blame the problem on the weather because that minimizes their expense. They almost always lie when they tell you what they can do for you when you miss a flight or connection because of something they did

  10. I had similar problems trying to settle my mother’s estate after she died in April. The only way to get a reaction in some cases was to opt for a new product.
    Last week I got through to Swiss Air UK very quickly for a refund of my cancelled First Class flight to Delhi. Unable to give any indication how long I must wait for the money, though.

  11. This is so true BA were an absolute nightmare to contact when they moved my flight from LGW TO LHR ,it took days to get through and kept cutting me off very rude.
    Why they cant make covid free calls or centres I dont know .
    Emirates on the other hand were superb and I spoke to an adviser within about 2 minutes every time i called (which was a quite a few) to upgrade my flights. well done to them leading the way with customer service again.

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