July 22, 2008

Midwest Airlines Swamped By Callers <> Some Customers Want Refunds, New Flights


After calling several times Sunday to reach someone at Midwest Airlines, and getting either busy signals or recorded messages advising hold times of up to 45 minutes, travel agent Katie Cianciolo finally decided to wait it out.

On hold for about 30 minutes, she finally reached a Midwest employee, requesting a rescheduled flight for some customers who were booked for a Florida vacation. Cianciolo hasn't heard yet whether she will be able to rebook her clients, who bought tickets nearly a year in advance at a rate roughly half of today's price.

At least Cianciolo, who operates Waukesha travel agency CruiseOne, made contact with a human being. The Oak Creek-based airline has been flooded with calls after Sunday's announced service cuts, the steepest in Midwest's 24-year existence. Airline reservation agents have been struggling to keep up with the calls, and some customers are getting frustrated.

"We can't get through," said Judith Berger, a group travel manager at Carlson Wagonlit Travel/Discovery World Travel, in Fond du Lac. "We're on hold for hours."

Travel agents call the same Midwest Airlines reservations line that individual passengers call, Berger said. She has requested a refund of deposits on 64 tickets she booked for a March flight to Florida. Midwest sent a fax Monday morning to Berger, saying the $3,200 refund would be processed "as soon as they have time," she said.

The level of calls triggered by the announced service cuts is what Midwest executives were expecting, said Randy Smith, vice president of sales and distribution.

Midwest Airlines and its Midwest Connect regional carrier, which account for just more than half the passengers who fly through Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport, are cutting service by 30% to 40%. The most heavily hit routes are leisure destinations. Midwest, like other airlines, is reducing flights and eliminating jobs because record-high fuel prices have made many routes unprofitable.

Midwest has reservations agents working on overtime, and others working from their homes, to help accommodate the surge in calls, Smith said.

But the airline is limited in what it can do to handle the larger work load, Smith said.

The reservations center in Oak Creek can handle only a certain number of phone lines to take incoming calls, he said. That's why some agents are working from their homes.

And hiring temporary employees isn't a solution, Smith said. That's because learning to operate an airline reservations system is "like learning a foreign language," and it typically involves about six weeks of training, he said.

Midwest has been in contact with other airlines and travel industry operators to discuss a possible outsourcing of the work to help lighten the load, Smith said. But, so far, Midwest's employees are simply doing the best they can to handle the requests for refunds and new bookings, he said.

Hold times for customers who call the reservations center typically range from 15 minutes to over an hour, Smith said.

He recommended that customers seeking refunds, and not new flights, use the carrier's Web site, www.midwestairlines.com, to process their refund requests. Customers can check on the status of their flight through the Web site. In some cases, Smith said, there are no changes to service once the new schedule takes effect Sept. 8.

Florida travelers are among those taking the biggest hits. Midwest is dropping its service to Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers, and the carrier is converting its Milwaukee-Orlando flights to seasonal service, running Oct. 21 through April 30.

The Orlando cuts led some customers to question why Midwest didn't simply maintain service to Orlando from Sept. 8, when it stops, through Oct. 21, when it resumes on a seasonal basis.

Midwest considered doing so, Smith said. But that would have been too expensive for Midwest Air Group Inc., the airline's corporate parent, which is running short on cash and trying to avoid a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. In Chapter 11, Midwest Air would be able to reorganize while protected from its creditors. But that process is expensive, and Midwest Air is trying to negotiate terms with its creditors and union flight crews without filing for Chapter 11 protection.

"We were going to lose buckets of money" by maintaining September and early October flights to Orlando, Smith said. And that could have threatened the company's existence, he said.

There's plenty of demand for flights from Milwaukee to Orlando, Smith said. But leisure travelers generally aren't willing to pay the much higher prices needed to make such year-around service profitable, he said. Midwest's new strategy is to focus on business travelers, who are generally willing to pay more than leisure travelers.

Airline executives even considered dropping the Orlando route entirely, Smith said.

"The real question was whether we could do it all," he said.

Tips for consumers

Midwest Airlines spokesman Michael Brophy said the airline will do its best to rebook passengers who have bought tickets for flights being canceled as a result of the service reduction. But, in many cases, especially with service to Florida cities, there will be no available flights on which to rebook. Midwest will offer refunds for those tickets.

To expedite the refund process: Visit www.midwestairlines.com and click on "View/Change Your Reservations" on the home page. Midwest's reservations center at (866) 613-1390 has been deluged with calls because of the schedule changes.

For a complete schedule: Go to www.midwestairlines.com and click on "Timetable" on the home page.

If your flight is canceled: You will be notified by Midwest, or by its travel agents or online booking service, such as Orbitz.

JSOnline.com How will changes to Midwest Airlines' service affect you, and how will they affect Milwaukee? Tell us in our online forum at www.jsonline.com.

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