As a frequent flier, you have most certainly called the customer support center of an airline and spoken to some faceless voice at the other end of the telephone to book a flight, change a reservation, find out if your flight was on time, or request assistance during irregular operations. The telephone call is usually successful, although there may be times you are unhappy with the results — or lack thereof — of the call.
When FlyerTalk member NWA/Deltaflygirl posted back on April 10, 2012 that she and her colleagues at the customer support reservations center in Seattle where they currently work was slated to close on August 30, she never expected the response to what she posted: FlyerTalk members who are customers of Delta Air Lines traveled from around the world specifically to visit the call center in an unprecedented event certain to be remembered by many for years to come.
Delta Air Lines quietly announced internally back in April that it is closing its Seattle and Sioux City customer support reservation centers, acquired from the merger with Northwest Airlines several years ago. The Seattle customer support reservations center is located inside of a nondescript pale yellow two-story building just across the street from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with four parking spaces marked for employees as the only evidence that a division of Delta Air Lines is located in the building marked “Northwest Kidney Centers.” Although there were still a few more years on the lease, the expensive real estate is the impetus which prompted the decision to close the Seattle call center. Many of the employees who decided to take advantage of the option of relocating to another call center will work in Salt Lake City, while others will relocate to such cities as Minneapolis, Tampa, Cincinnati and Atlanta. Some are taking the opportunity to retire early. Others have no choice but to search for a new job, as relocation is out of the question due to commitments such as remaining close to family.
As FlyerTalk members expressed their sympathies and condolences and discussed call center operations, FlyerTalk member DLroads decided in the true spirit of FlyerTalk to take the initiative of arranging a visit by FlyerTalk members to the customer support reservations center in Seattle. You would think to yourself, “who in their right mind would pay to travel great distances and visit a boring call center?” But as a result, 18 FlyerTalk members — eleven of whom are Delta Air Lines SkyMiles Diamond Medallion frequent flier loyalty program elite members — representing a combined total of greater than 16,000,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and with several Million Miler members in the group traveled to Seattle from all over the United States and from as far away as Israel and Singapore specifically to show appreciation for all that the customer support reservations agents had done for them over the years. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to attend. Along with the cards personalized for each of the almost 200 employees personally hand-signed by the FlyerTalk members who attended — some of which were printed in languages other than English — 252 doughnuts consisting of 41 varieties were purchased from Top Pot, as well as gifts and prizes from all over the world were brought for the customer support reservations center employees to cheer them up. They were also treated to their choice of either a complimentary first drink or a dinner special of a hamburger with French fries after work at Good Time Ernie’s — an establishment owned by former Seattle customer support reservations center employee and FlyerTalk member fromDL2GTE.
Upon arrival at the airport on Delta Air Lines flights with free wireless Internet service generously provided by GOGO, select FlyerTalk members were greeted by James Shea — manager of training and development at the Seattle customer support reservations center — with a customized welcome sign like the one made for me shown to the left.
FlyerTalk members were given a tour of the customer support reservations center, comprised of customized cubicles — some equipped with ergonomically adjustable desks — in an open area divided into subsections with supervisors in one area. A break room for those employees who need to take a respite from the customer calls is equipped with tables and chairs, a television and vending machines. There are also training areas, offices and a reception area in what could be described as a typical customer support reservations center — but the employees who work there could be described as anything but typical, as many of them have been employed there for at least a dozen years. For example, Helen is a customer support representative who has worked there for 44 years, starting with Bonanza Airlines, which became Republic Airlines, which was taken over by Northwest Airlines and then was merged with Delta Air Lines.
Listening to snippets of the telephone calls as FlyerTalk members passed by each of the cubicles was enlightening, to say the least. I heard some of the agents speaking to customers in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. I had to chuckle when I overheard one customer support reservations center representative inform the customer “but you do not have enough SkyMiles.” I can only imagine the reaction of the customer at the other end of the telephone call: was he angry? Was she disappointed? Did he make a mistake? I will never know — but I wanted to know. We originally attempted to arrange to have FlyerTalk members take actual customer telephone calls — similar to when FlyerTalk members actually assisted customers in the temporary role of gate agents of Delta Air Lines in Atlanta — but due to privacy concerns and sensitive information of the customer which included credit card accounts, this was unfortunately not possible.
The solar-powered plastic flowers happily dancing in the windows overlooking the Wally Park parking lot and Hilton hotel next door contrasted the bittersweet mood exhibited by the employees met by the FlyerTalk members. One single mother with a child who is nine years old somberly resigned to the reality that she must search for another job, as relocation was out of the question. Another woman recounted a telephone call with a customer who hoped that she and her family would “die in a plane crash” for not being able to seat all of the members of the family of the customer together on a flight. Yet another woman — women comprise such a vast majority of the employees of the Seattle customer support reservations center that of all of the bathrooms, only one is designated for men — fought back tears as she fondly reflected upon her years of service, about to come to an end as she readies herself for retirement.
There was a session of questions and answers with the supervisors and senior employees, which eventually had to be cut short due to the volume of calls — ironic, given that the customer support reservations center comprised by a vast majority of senior employees with many years of service and experience will only exist for another month.
While lunch, a tour of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a silver key chain in the shape of an airplane with the Delta Air Lines logotype and the words Seattle Reservations engraved on it and limited-edition destination posters were provided to FlyerTalk members in a show of appreciation, none was more touching and more meaningful than the gratitude tearfully expressed by the employees themselves. “I cannot believe you did this” and “I cannot thank you enough” were amongst the phrases repeatedly uttered throughout the day to the FlyerTalk members by the grateful employees. This in and of itself was worth the time, effort and expense of each FlyerTalk member who attended.
Although the closing of the customer support reservations centers in Seattle and Sioux City were purely business decisions — and it is difficult to fault Delta Air Lines for making these decisions — it is also difficult to ignore the personal feelings expressed by the customer support reservations center employees who now have a face and are indeed, yes, human. Thank you to Dolly, Jim, Iris and all of the other people who welcomed us with open arms and made us truly feel appreciated as customers during our visit.
As the result of this truly memorable visit and meeting these dedicated professionals, a call to a customer support reservations center of an airline will never be the same for me.