How To Talk To Airline Phone Agents

Filed Under: Advice, Awards

Through our award booking service I spend a fair amount of time on the phone with airlines. And by “fair amount of time” I mean roughly half my life.

So I have a decent bit of experience with talking to airline reservations agents, and there are a few things I’ve picked up over the years. 

Be polite

In general, my approach is always to be nice and try and get the agent to feel like we’re on the same “side” in booking an award.

And I truly think this makes a difference. No one wants to be bad at their job, so calling and demanding certain flights or telling an agent they’re incompetent isn’t going to get you very far, in my experience.

Being kind is nearly always more effective, and is certainly more rewarding — I have literally had Delta agents clap their hands and call over a colleague when a complex itinerary priced at the lowest tier.

“Hang up and call again”

This has been a mantra in the frequent flyer community for years, and for good reason. If you’re not “connecting” with an agent, or they don’t seem like they’re going to be helpful, politely thank them for their help and end the call.

Even with long hold times you’ll generally come out ahead by spending the time to find a good agent, in my experience.

Lead the call

Life will be better for everyone if you have done your research. This might be knowing what flights are available, what the potential glitches are, and are generally able to “lead” the call.

This is the same principle Gary and Ben tried to demonstrate last year at FTU Tampa — ultimately finding award space is only half the challenge.

US Airways as an example

I’ve talked about different strategies for booking US Airways awards in the past, partly because US Airways manually prices award tickets, so the individual agents have historically had a great deal of control over whether or not an itinerary is valid.

Rather than getting into the various ways to “maximize” a routing, since I’ve covered that extensively, I thought it might be helpful to give a specific example of a call with US Airways.

I picked out a moderately-complicated (but probably legal) routing, then set about trying to book it. One of my colleagues listened in on the call to transcribe the full the play-by-play, which I’ll get to shortly.

The itinerary

While I’ve booked crazy routings in the past, for this example I wanted to work with something fairly straightforward that anyone might realistically try to book. After looking at award space, I settled on the following:

12/10 Cathay Pacific 897 Los Angeles to Hong Kong departing at 8:25AM and arriving at 4:05PM (+1 day) [First]
12/11 Cathay Pacific 791 Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur departing at 8:30PM and arriving at 12:20AM (+1 day) [Business]
12/12 Malaysia Airlines 141 Kuala Lumpur to Sydney departing at 9:00AM and arriving at 8:15PM [Business]

12/16 Japan Airlines 772 Sydney to Narita departing at 9:15AM and arriving at 5:05PM [First]
12/17 Japan Airlines 10 Narita to Chicago departing at 11:10AM and arriving at 7:45AM [First]
12/17 American 2356 Chicago to San Francisco departing at 10:40AM and arriving at 1:25PM [First]
12/17 American 1143 San Francisco to Los Angeles departing at 2:20PM and arriving at 3:45PM [First]

Cathay Pacific first class

The goal here was to have a good scenario rather than an awesome routing, so a few things influenced the choices here:

  • US Airways has been struggling with booking flights on Malaysia. I have no idea why (but have been told some interesting reasons), and on occasion have even had supervisors go into their revenue systems to find award space. That makes no sense to me, but oh well.
  • Japan Airlines award space has to be accessed from a different system as well, and not all US Airways agents know this.
  • Japan Airlines has a ton of first class award space to Sydney this winter, and people have reported challenges with booking that flight, so I wanted to try it.
  • On top of that, when I made this call both JAL flights were further than 90 days out, and I wanted to see if agents (or the system) had received the update.
  • According to US Airways “time travel” logic, the American flight leaves Chicago prior to the flight between Narita and Chicago, and I like a challenge 😉

Japan Airlines first class

Call #1: Kim

Me: Good afternoon, how are you doing?
Kim: I’m fine thank you, how can I help?
Me: Good to hear, thanks. I am calling because I need to book an award ticket and I know it is going to be complicated. Is that something you can help me with?
Kim: Yes.

(not winning any points for personality thus far)

Kim: Dates and departure city?
Me: It will be roundtrip from Los Angeles to Sydney. I do have some specific flights that another agent had told me were available, would that help?
Kim: The flight information will work.
Me: Okay. Charlie X-ray 897 from Lima Alpha X-ray to Hotel Kilo Golf at 8:25AM please.
Kim: Coach or first class?
Me: First, please.
Kim: I have one seat open there, what is next?
Me: Charlie X-ray 791 from Hotel Kilo Golf  to Kilo Uniform Lima.
Kim: CX?
Me: Yes.
Kim: Moving on.
Me: Mike Hotel 141 from  Kilo Uniform Lima to Sugar Yankee Delta.
Kim: Okay, what carrier?
Me: Malaysia, which I realize can be a little complicated, so please take your time.

Kim: *takes longer to look* I have business class available.
Me: That’s great, thanks.
Kim: So when are you returning from Sydney?
Me: Ah. Last time I did something like this the agent mentioned putting the itinerary on hold before it timed out — do we need to do that in this case?
Kim: Yes, may I have the Dividend Miles account number?
Me: Of course, it’s […].
Kim: Okay, so we have that locked in.
Me: Thanks for your help so far, I really appreciate it. Can I have that record locator just in case?
Kim: Okay, it’s […] For the return you’re going Sydney to where?
Me: Sydney to Tokyo Narita.
Kim: Which carrier?
Me: Japan Airlines.
Kim: Okay, hold on now I have to go a different way… okay, Japan Airline is not available.
Me: Interesting. The flight at 9:15AM?
Kim: Correct.
Me: Can you take a look at one other Japan Airlines flight? I’m also hoping for 
17 of December from November Romeo Tango to Oscar Romeo Delta.
Are you thinking flight 10?
Class closed — not available.
That’s really interesting. Have you had some issues with Japan Airlines?
Yes they are hard to get.
Me: Okay let’s leave what we have on hold and try to figure out the rest later. Really appreciate the help.

I could probably have walked her through the process of manually selling in the Japan Airlines space, but to be honest she wasn’t particularly friendly. I will patiently spend hours on the phone with an agent who wants to help but doesn’t have the technical skills. But ain’t nobody got time for agents who don’t want to be on the phone in the first place.

Call #2: Tammy

Rather than calling US Airways immediately, I decided to call American to confirm the Japan Airlines flights were truly available. Occasionally the British Airways site will display phantom space, and there isn’t a great way to confirm JAL availability otherwise, and I didn’t want to spend hours on the phone if the space wasn’t there.

Fortunately, calling the American Executive Platinum desk is generally delightful:

Tammy: AAdvantage Executive Platinum, Tammy […]
Me: Hello how are you doing this evening?
Tammy: Good, and you?
Me: Great, thanks. I just have a quick question about award availability on Japan Airlines.
Tammy: Yes, where are you going?
Me: Sydney to Tokyo on December 16th.
Tammy: You trying to use AAdvantage miles?
Me: Yes.
Tammy: First, business, or coach?
Me: First, one person.
Tammy: Let me check one moment.
Tammy: Sydney to Narita?
Me: Yes please.
Tammy: That is showing sold out on that date – are you locked in?
Me: I am flexible, but first class is my preference.
Tammy: Let me look.
Tammy: Oh, there is a first class on the JAL flight arriving at 5:05PM.
Me: Awesome. Can you look at one more from Tokyo to Chicago in first please?
Tammy: They have one flight do you want me to take that on the 17th?
Me: Perfect thank you so much — let me check a few more things and I will call back.

Even with the small hiccup of not seeing the award space initially, that is how a normal call with a competent agent should go. Kind of puts things in perspective. 😉

Call #3: Felicia

Having confirmed award space was in fact available, I called US Airways again:

Felicia: US Airways, Felicia speaking.
Me: Hi how are you doing today.
Felicia: Great! You?
Me: Can I give you a record locator?
Felicia: Sure go ahead.
Me: It’s […] We need to add in the return flights. They’re on Japan Airlines, which I know is a pain for you, so sorry in advance.
Felicia: **laughs**
Felicia: Alright what are we looking for.
Me: December 16 from Sydney to Tokyo Narita in first.
Felicia: Ok let’s see what they have.
Felicia: You said first class – okay let’s see what comes up! *long wait*
Felicia: Okay, got it. What is the connecting flight?
Me: December 17 the JL flight 10 from Narita to Chicago in first.
Felicia: Okay hold on *another long wait*
Me: Thank you.
Felicia: I have my fingers crossed and I hope it sticks.
Me: Thank you! I appreciate that you are trying to figure out how to do this!
Felicia: I remember that Japan Air is a problem child and I have to go through a different page! But I have my fingers crossed so let’s see what happens.
Felicia: It’s available but it is not letting it stick – hold on let me see if i can get someone else to get it to stick. It is available so hold on.
*put on hold*
Felicia: Thanks for waiting for so long. Now it is sticking – not sure how they made it happen!
Me: Can I add in the final segment as well on December 17 American from Chicago to San Francisco?
Felicia: Sure we can do that.
Me: In first, please.
Felicia: Is that the final destination?
Me: SFO to LAX on the 2:20PM flight in first please.
Felicia: Trying to get it to stick, sorry just hang on. I got really excited about Japan!
Me: And that trip from Chicago is time travel which I know your computers don’t like.
Felicia: Oh, and you’re leaving Chicago before you arrive. Our computers don’t like that…*long wait* Okay – it is in there! 
Me: Thank you SO SO much!
Felicia: Do you want me to store any fares or anything?
Me: Sure that would be wonderful.

Having a friendly and willing agent makes all the difference.

This call lasted nearly 45 minutes, even though it sounds straightforward. There was a lot of time spent waiting while she worked her systems and checked with supervisors, which is why it’s so important to have an agent willing to work with you. Someone in a bad mood, or who is irritated at the call isn’t going to put that much effort in.

In the end, this wasn’t something I actually wanted to ticket, so I let the hold expire. The space was all confirmed though, and I don’t think there would have been any issues with the rates desk on this.


Bottom line

While I love this hobby, dealing with airline phone agents is kind of the bane of my existence. Over the years I’ve done what I can to apply the above tricks, and I find that it not only makes things go faster, but makes it more rewarding all around as well. Like I said, finding award space is often only half the battle nowadays, especially for complex routings.

But with some patience, persistence, and a positive attitude, you should be able to minimize your chances of running into problems when ticketing an award by phone.

  1. You’re clearly using the NATO phonetic alphabet, including saying “Delta” to airlines other than DL. (I’ve had agents who used the NATO alphabet but substituted “David” for “Delta”.) Why then say “Sugar Yankee Delta” instead of “Sierra Yankee Delta”?

    And does it really help to spell out airport codes? I usually just say the name (“Narita”, “Hong Kong”) or spell out the code with ordinary letters when that’s commonly used (“LAX”, “SFO”, “JFK”).

    As another hint for getting the agents on your side, when starting some calls where I’m trying to resolve a problem (whether my fault or the airline’s) I’ve often gotten good results by starting with “I have a problem I hope you can help me with.”

  2. What a great report! And such a great reminder that patience and a good attitude make a world of difference.

    I have the Singapore BA customer service number on speed dial, multitudinous thanks to you, and was wondering if you knew of any other airlines with similar phone service sweet spots?

  3. Agreed 100% Ben. I can tell in seconds if the agent isn’t engaged, despite my best efforts. Connecting with them in some way to remind them there are two humans on the phone – them and I – makes a significant difference. I’ve had some return with answers like, “I’m not seeing First available…but – can you hold on? I’m going to check with a colleague and a supervisor to check on something else.”

    If one was rude to the agen or saw them as an order-taker, do you think they would have received a response like that?

    Great info to share with others Ben! Nice!

  4. You should have a weekly feature like that: Booking of the week. It may be a complicated one or a funny one or a unusual one. By phone or some tricky ones online. As you have already done (and still do) a wonderful job teaching how to find award space, a step by step booking post would be great.

  5. how do you make sure you get the lowest priced awards?(using the least miles)

    I am trying to book
    *Open Jaw* & * Stop Over *
    on United.

    Does that work for stopovers?

  6. agreed, being polite is key… and if the agent is still mean, just say thank you and hang up… they would not help anyway.

  7. @ masterspinner — Using United miles? Your open jaw has to be at the turnaround point, so in this case would need to be in Asia and not Europe. But if you made it a stopover instead, that should work.

  8. @ meegabroad — I find the BA call center to be the one with the biggest difference between their foreign one and US one. For what it’s worth I also prefer the French Air France call center to their US one, though the difference isn’t nearly as big.

  9. @ Rich — Maybe it’s my Germanness, but I struggle with the word “sierra.” When I say it, it sounds more like “zero.” And yes, for the more complicated codes I do find it helps to spell them out phonetically.

  10. since you have three ‘depart” on your itinerary… does it look in DM system like you have a stop-over in NRT?

  11. @onemileatatime
    which airlines, other than US, have you successfully gotten to bend the rules for award routing?

  12. @ Lantean — That happens anytime you have a connection that isn’t same day, but they still don’t view it as a stopover.

  13. @ purcitron — Well I wouldn’t even call it bending rules, since they don’t publish rules. With most other airlines the computers price award tickets.

  14. I currently have an American Award in first from HNL-SFO- ORD. There was a slight schedule change (15 minutes) to one flight and i’d like to switch to the HNL-DFW-ORD flight due to them using 767’s on the route. The change doesn’t really affect me at all, but i’ve read many times people having success getting better flights when a small change hits. I’ve called a few times and have gotten nowhere. Are there any specific tips for getting them to change the routing on such a slight change?

  15. @ Shaun — Frankly that’s not something I’ve ever done. Usually a small change is enough to get an award redeposited, but it’s unlikely they’ll open up space because of an inconsequential change. They’d have to go through inventory management, and they’d need a good reason to open those seats. Sorry.

  16. @Shaun – I changed an AA KOA-LAX-ORD ticket to HNL-ORD last February on the first call with no problem. I don’t know if the policy has changed or if I just lucked out with a great agent (with whom I was congenial and polite). It is certainly worth going for the 767!

  17. Those are great strategies for phone booking and I agree being polite does help. I do have to add though that some agents really are awful at least on US Airways and United. They have no authority to do anything that isn’t in the script and are hard to understand sometimes because of an accent. The fact you had a pleasant call with AA EXP line isn’t surprising it should be that way. Call US Air or united as a non elite and see how helpful they are.

  18. lucky, do you have any experience calling UA? Do you know which hours get which call center as it seems certain times of the day you get better UA agents.

  19. Would have been a much more illustrative example if you’d left your Dividend Miles account number in the transcript! 😉

    Seriously, this kind of example is very useful for those of us with little experience.

  20. I agree with the earlier commenter that using the phonetic alphabet is a bit weird when not required to resolve ambiguity. No “normal” person is going to say “Lima Alpha X-ray” instead of L-A-X. In fact, most people would have no clue about the airport codes (LAX would be an exception as it is commonly used). So, your strategy seems inconsistent to me. You’re trying to play dumb (“Is that something you can help me with?”) or at least trying not to emphasize that you know far more about the agent’s job than they do, yet you then descend into aviation geekery.

  21. @ anon — Really depends what you’re hoping to do and how you define “good” (do you want bad good or good good?). In general if you ask for help with international reservations you’ll get a US agent.

  22. The potential frustrations of dealing with call centers are one reason I take whether or not a FF program has online booking for the awards I want before I get too heavily invested in it.

  23. This was a great post. Also just a tip, recently I’ve had to do some changes to an Avios reservation outside the operating hours of the Singapore BA office. After I got the busy signal the first few times I tried to reach the Executive Club line, I attempted to call 1-800 AIRWAYS to see if I could get someone to at least transfer me to an Executive Club agent faster. The first agent I had refused to touch an Avios reservation and refused to transfer me, the second one seemed to have issues with the itinerary and my phone dropped the call, but the third one changed it for me no problem. The lesson I learned was that some BA agents on the 1-800-AIRWAYS line are willing to work with Avios reservations and the wait times are significantly shorter there (like the most I waited to speak to an agent was 5 minutes so its still worth hanging up and calling again). It’s definitely worth a try if you can’t wait for the Singapore office to open and you don’t want to deal with the nightmarish Executive Club line.

  24. Now this is a great post. And now we know why businesses like yours (your award booking service, not the blog) exist – I certainly would not have the patience myself to spend potentially hours going through this.

  25. Good evening Ben,
    I am a big fan of your blog and read it religiously. I love your trip reports and I am a small time mileage earner and have earned all my points through your site (Chase Sapphire and AA Citi).
    Thank you.

    As a customer service agent who works in a call centre, there are a few points I would like to comment on…

    1. Be polite. 100% true. I can not tell you the amount of times I have gone over and beyond my job duties to assist a customer who was polite and gone out of my way to make the life of rude customer as miserable as can be.

    2. Hang up and call again. While in essence this does work. I mean, you have a large call centre with 150+ employees, what are the chances you will get the same agent, right? However, agents talk and leave notes. If you wanted to make an illegal routing and the agent wasn’t letting you and you hang up and call again, you may get an agent near the first who would see this and tell the new agent, NO. Or simply, an agent over hears another agent saying “Oh yes, from JFK-LAX-HKG… No problem sir”

    Also, agents leave notes. Even if you do not give any details, they probably have your account open by simply searching using your phone number. And yes, they leave long, detailed, graphic messages. All you need is to get Miss Rules-By-The-Book who sees the following notes to take matters into her own hands:

    01/01/14 10:34 “Customer hung up while enquiring about award availibility.”

    01/01/14 10:45 “Customer tried making JFK-LAX-ICN-HGK-SIN-NRT-LAX booking before getting disconnected”

    01/01/14 10:58 “Customer asked about…..”

    And just like that she can put a prompt on your account which every agent will see any time they access your account saying something like this “customer seems to hang up often when doesn’t like what they are hearing…”

    You get the point.

    Bottom line, as long as you are pleasant to the agent, and aren’t obvious with the hang up’s you could get away with it.

    All you need for is a note like this:

    “Customer trying to make illegal routing and gets very angry when told no.”

  26. Great article Ben! I like the general step by step approach of this post. It illustrates well the patience one must have in attempting to book an award ticket. Plus, it confirms how valuably important it is to do one’s homework before engaging on that phone call, when being polite to the agent is truly an imperative here. Which just goes to show how true the idiom “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”, really is!

    BTW I agree with @carlos on the benefits of doing a ‘Booking of the week or month’ feature. It would be most helpful to all us readers and especially the uninitiated.

  27. Outstanding! Thanks so much. (I’ll point out that the “be polite” works well in many areas when dealing with workers that interact with the public all day.)

  28. Curious Lucky, when you book for clients, how do you represent yourself to the agent? Do you have to pretend to be the client?

  29. Yes BUT don’t you think that HKG-BNK-SYD would have been a “better” route with Emirates showers on this 5th freedom route?

  30. Have this one bookmarked. I think it’s one of the best posts I’ve ever read. And that isn’t disparaging of other posts. I just think this is such a practical example of how to manage the payoff in this game.

  31. @italdesign Actually that’s an interesting question. I help family members make awards reservations all the time and despite multiple attempts to add me as an authorized account user I often end up having to pretend to be the relative I’m calling on behalf of. I’d also be curious to know if Lucky has a workaround.

  32. Great post as usual Lucky! Just curious – do you think for a SF to New Zealand on US Airways, do you think they will let you route via Europe? I know US Airways has bizzare rules but wanted to get your thoughts on what might be relatively “doable” itinerary to book. Thought about: SFO-JFK-LHR-DXB-MEL-AKL, AKL-MEL-KUL-LHR-JFK-SFO? Thanks!

  33. Thanks Ben! Do you think JFK-LHR-DXB-MEL is more-doable for a US Airways US to Oz award? And/or is routing through Asia more realistic. Thanks again!

  34. @ Billy — That’s definitely more likely, but that routing is still a stretch. Much more likely to have luck trying to route through Asia.

  35. @ Lucky – a little late to the party (catching up on posts after vacation) but wanted to thank you for the very useful post 🙂

  36. Hi Lucky,

    I know Singapore Airlines has that crazy backtracking policy. I called Singapore to feed her the following routes: JFK-FRA-NCE (NCE being slightly backtracking from FRA). She put me hold for a couple of minutes and quoted me the 80,000 miles. I just wanted to be sure before I tranfser from my Ultimate Reward account. Does that sound correct to you?

  37. Coming from a Res Agent, I enjoyed reading this. Just a few comments…

    Yes, it’s wonderful when a passenger has specific flight numbers and a routing picked out. But the info we need first is Origin/Destination, and Dates. I can’t start searching until I have those…so getting those to us first goes a long way. Flight numbers do nothing for me until I know where you’re going from and to. From there, yes, we do love that info and we appreciate when someone’s done their homework. But give us O/D, Dates, # of people, and class of service first!

    I’m well aware that not all agents are great at their job (in fact many are just the opposite)…but I don’t need airport codes unless it’s somewhere really out there. Sydney, Narita, SIngapore…I (and the vast majority of agents), don’t need those codes. Kuala Lumpur I know, but many don’t, so that’s fine…but really. It’s almost a little insulting when someone gives the the airport code for LAX or Tokyo. We have to know the major (like, vast majority of US ones, and 100 or so international ones, more geared to our alliance’s hubs/major destinations) codes in the first 2 weeks of training. A passenger may think Bali or Hyderabad or Split is rare…but I see them several times a week. (This is mostly a pet peeve of mine, probably because I’m an aviation nerd in addition to my job. Maybe other agents appreciate this).

    But being nice and patient definitely goes a LONG way. Award tickets are usually complicated, using multiple systems and we’re at the mercy of another airline in many cases. Passengers that know that going in means I’m much more willing to go overboard to help. I like doing award tickets, it’s a challenge. I love finding something from nothing.

    Call Handle Time is a concern for every phone agent, especially since it can affect bonuses…but the competent ones likely exceed in this anyways, and a long call here and there isn’t the end of the world. I’ve spend 2 hours with someone doing a 5 city Europe/Asia Award with someone, exploring multiple options to get the lowest rate because they were patient, pleasant to talk to, and flexible.

    And if you say you’re flexible, actually define what you mean! I can’t tell you how often someone will say they’re flexible, and can leave any time in a 15 day window, which affects how I search for a flight, but when I come back with something a week off of their ideal date, they say they can’t do it. This is one thing that will frustrate the agent you’re talking with faster than anything else. Give your limits early on.

  38. Thanks Lucky. Yes, this will be in First. I’m thinking SFO-JFK-FRA-NCE. SFO-JFK segment will be on Virgin America, because it’s not available yet on United. Will 80,000 mile that SQ quoted me, will change because of the Virgin America segment?

  39. @ Andre — No, you can’t include Virgin America on an award with Singapore travel. You need to book that as a separate award.

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