Traveler complaints mount as tourism recovers in Hawaii

Hawaiian Airlines has improved its financial performance dramatically this year, but the airline has struggled to cope with the negative impact the US travel recovery has had on call center waiting times.

It’s been roughly 10 months since Safe Travels, Hawaii’s immigration program for travelers, reopened tourism in the Hawaiian Islands. However, travelers who call the Hawaiian customer service call center still experience long waits. The waiting times were one hour and 15 minutes on Friday afternoon.

Hawaiian spokesman Alex Da Silva said: “We have also significantly reduced waiting times by phone by staffing our call center; However, with the ongoing pent-up demand for summer travel, we understand that some callers may still have longer waiting times at peak times of the day.

“We appreciate the patience of our guests and are working as quickly as possible to help anyone who needs to speak to our team members.”

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

It’s not just Hawaii’s home airline that is struggling and apologizing for how it is responding to a faster-than-expected recovery in domestic tourism. When the pandemic broke out, the number of air travelers in the United States fell below 100,000 on some days, a level not reached in decades. This year it has increased from less than 700,000 a day in early February to 2 million a day in July.

The demand for Hawaii has led airlines to launch an unprecedented number of domestic seats. Airlines planned more than a million U.S. non-stop seats to Hawaii in June, a 14.3% increase over the same period in 2019, a record year. They offered almost 1.2 million seats in July, almost 23% more than in July 2019. They planned 1.1 million seats in August, more than 28% more than in August 2019. An increase of 3% is expected for September planned a 10% increase in October and a 16% increase in November.

Da Silva said the Hawaiian call center was overwhelmed with cancellations in March 2020. He said the airline has been challenged by the number of people looking to rebook since March this year.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries said that once the tourists arrive in Hawaii, there are also operational problems at airports and other places that are in increasing pain.

“The collapse itself has been painful, and the reopening and restart are uneven. There is a lack of uniformity. It’s not elegant. But at some point it will stabilize, ”said De Fries.

De Fries said Hawaii’s airports are not designed to do what the tourism industry and travelers ask of them.

“I was in Kahului on Saturday and waited an hour and a half (on the airport line). It’s an impossible situation, right, they’ve meandered the line through what appears to be half the airport square, ”he said. “But I travel between the islands often enough to see that they are constantly working to find a way to improve it.”

De Fries said few people realize that the economic collapse has hurt Hawaii’s tourism system and that the industry will need time to recover before reaching full capacity.

“If you turn off the house installation for 15 months when you finally turn it on again, you don’t want to drink the first water. The first water is not an indication of the quality of the water source, ”said De Fries. “You have to allow the system to purify itself.”

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

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

Of course, the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau has seen an increase in complaints during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, HVCB said it received around 15-20 complaints and inquiries from visitors a month. During the pandemic, HVCB said monthly complaints and inquiries exploded on 24,000 calls and more than 20,000 emails.

Most of them have been about the state travel entry-level program Safe Travels, so they are starting to decline as there are more options for visitors.

However, HVCB said it is trying to improve results by regularly sending messages to airlines, the travel trade, meeting planners, travel media, hotels and other partners about changes in travel restrictions for Hawaii.

Both the aviation industry and the hospitality industry stayed on the ground during the pandemic, said Brad DiFiore, co-founder and managing director of Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting, which provides advice on airline service development.

“Part of it is that we are at this super summit right now. The demand for summer travel in the domestic market is almost as high as it was in 2019, so the same number of people are traveling but there are many more changes, ”DiFiore said. “People have somehow resigned themselves to the fact that they will wait. Hotels have the same problems; it’s not just the airlines. “

DiFiore said the customer service challenges are more pressing for companies, which have been scaled back more aggressively during the economic uncertainty resulting from the pandemic last year. DiFiore said these companies are now trying to scale, but that takes time as customer service reps often require specialized training.

Another problem is that since their flight change policies were relaxed, consumers have been calling for changes to be made in higher amounts than they were before the pandemic, he said.

DiFiore said some airlines are also struggling to get enough aircraft or trained pilots to meet their flight schedules, which has resulted in flight cancellations and, in turn, exacerbated the burden on customer service staff.

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

U.S. Department of Transportation air travel consumer reports show that customers were generally less satisfied during the pandemic.

In 2020, the office reported 102,550 complaints, which is by far the highest number in its history. Complaints last year increased more than 568% from 2019 when there were only 15,342 complaints.

The DOT received 3,539 complaints in May, up from 21,951 in May 2020. May was the last month that data was available. In May, 1,216 complaints related to US airlines. Of the 28 U.S. airlines DOT received complaints about in May, Hawaiian ranked 9th with just 33 complaints, compared to United, which was 1st with 263 complaints.

Da Silva said Hawaiian’s latency is not affecting the company’s overall recovery. However, he said, “We are happy that we are improving because we know how frustrating the long waiting times can be for our guests.”

Da Silva said Hawaiian’s problems have been improving every week and the company expects waiting times to decrease even further as it continues to expand its call center.

Most other airlines do the same. Last week, the Honolulu Star Advertiser spent more than two hours on hold with Delta Air Lines.

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, said this week that his airline expects to hire 4,000-5,000 people this year. Delta plans to add 1,300 reservation agents by the fall to reduce long waiting times for customers calling the airline. It also adds customer service, freight and airport staff, and plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots by next summer.

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

“After a year of lockdowns, it is encouraging to see so many of you going back to heaven this summer and claiming your lives back,” Bastian said in the email. “We look forward to welcoming you back, but the unexpected pace of our customers’ return has created some unforeseen challenges as we set out to meet demand and handle a record-breaking number of calls. “

American Airlines is canceling extended vacations for around 3,300 flight attendants and encouraging them to return to work well in advance of the vacation. And American plans to hire 800 new flight attendants by March, according to an airline manager.

American last year offered flight attendants and other employees long-term leave of absence to cut costs while the company struggled with a sharp drop in travel caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Other airlines did the same. Now they need people.

The reasons for the labor shortage are hotly debated. Some employers in Hawaii and the rest of the country have blamed the federal government’s additional $ 300 per week for unemployment benefits. Hospitality unions like Unite Here Local 5 have expressed concern that some companies have used the pandemic to cut jobs and pay. Some workers in the visitor industry who suddenly lost their jobs a year ago have slipped into new careers and are not returning.

“The pandemic has caused some people to reevaluate what they want to do,” said Da Silva. “But that didn’t lead to any operational problems for us. The second quarter was technically a loss, but it was a lot better. With the demand, we started fixing the business and bringing people back. I expect it will be much better this fall as long as things move forward and the Delta variant (of COVID-19) is contained. “

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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