Help Me Customer Service…Hurricane Irene Damaged My Travel Plans

August 29, 2011 / 16 Comments


John (my co-founder) and I started to get nervous last Wednesday that our weekend travel plans would get canceled due to Hurricane Irene, so we did what most people did: we called the airlines to check on flight status, cancellation policies and airport closures.

While we waited on hold for several minutes, we thought what any entrepreneur in the customer service space would think: how will the contact centers of the country’s largest airlines perform under the stresses and high inquiry volumes caused by Hurricane Irene?

Well, since it just so happens we are in the business of evaluating and rating customer service performance, we mobilized our network of “mystery shoppers on steroids” to find out, and here’s what we found:


STELLAService originally excluded replies from tweets sent to Continental’s Twitter account since it stated that its Twitter account is no longer active. Even though United and Continental have merged and now use a single active Twitter handle, @United, we have updated our findings as of 8/31/11 to reflect the 58% response rate to tweets directed to the inactive @Continental Twitter account. The tweets sent to American Airlines were sent to an account they deem to be inactive, so we have removed their Twitter findings and updated the above chart for that as well.

Kudos to U.S. Airways for keeping average hold times under three minutes the day before the storm hit. Most of the wait times at other airlines ranged from 10 minutes to over an hour (American Airlines took an average of 1 hour and 32 minutes to answer our calls)!

As for leveraging Twitter to provide service to travelers in despair, Delta, Frontier and jetBlue proved their social media savviness. Delta and jetBlue even responded to customer service-related tweets within 14 minutes and 11 minutes, respectively. Delta took it one step further and personalized it’s Twitter support by denoting the initials of the specific agent at Delta who replied to each tweet. This is time saving and convenient in the event the issue needed to be taken to the phones and that agent’s name could be referenced as someone who was already aware of the problem / issue.

Considering the major challenges in reaching a customer service agent over the phone and the conversational nature of twitter as a channel for customer support, it was great to see these airlines use Twitter so effectively to help their customers. AirTran responded to none of the tweets we sent the day before Irene made landfall.

It’s obvious we have choices when it comes to choosing an airline, and while there are sometimes slight price differences that make us lean one way or another, at the end of the day it’s all about the customer experience. When things are calm or when things are crazy, we need our airline of choice to be able to help us quickly, confidently and in a genuine way.

The study was conducted on Friday, August 26, 2011. An average of eight phone calls were made to each airline from 9am to 6:30pm ET on Friday, August 26th.  Approximately 12 tweets sent to each airline between 12am to 12pm ET on Friday, August 26th.

16 thoughts on “Help Me Customer Service…Hurricane Irene Damaged My Travel Plans

  1. Brilliant idea to rate these experiences!!! It is these times of stress and anxiety that customer service REALLY matters most…Thx for the GREAT info!!! Will remember for future travel plans.

  2. I called Air France and was on hold for 15–20 minutes before I got an agent. But she was helpful. I resolved my canceled flight for a new departure day after she called me back (oddly, she warned me that after 30 minutes our call would be disconnected, automatically!).

  3. I don’t know where you got your Continental information from, but the more appropriate hold time would be “N/A.” I was supposed to fly from the Bay Area to New York, and every time I called Continental, I got the following response:

    “Due to high call volume, we cannot take your call at this time. Goodbye,” followed by the phone being hung up.

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  6. Was not able to get through to continental for 48 hours while stranded in Haiti during Irene. When I didn’t get the high call volume message that hung up on me – I was placed on hold for over 3 hours before hanging up. EPICFAIL

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  11. For several days, I got the same response from Continental:” Do to high call volume, we cannot take your call at this time. Goodbye. ” They had no customer service during this time so I would rate them the worst.

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