Thursday, July 19, 2007

Northwest Airlines Phone System Lunacy

First: let me preface these comments by telling I really like Northwest Airlines. I've flown with them many times in the past and I've always gotten good service at a pretty good price. But - their automated phone system leaves a lot to be desired. Here's my story.

I purchased tickets for me and my three sons to fly to Michigan. I normally like to do my travel deals on line, and this was no exception. I got a great deal on Priceline (I've been saying William Shatner negotiated a great deal for me). This was over a month ago.

The other day, I went to Northwest's web site to confirm my reservations and select seats. All I had to do was enter my confirmation number and my reservation for all four tickets was right there on the screen. When I went to pick my seats, however, I noted they were all taken except for the "premium" seats which cost something like $15 extra.

Thinking there was a problem and that the flight was horribly overbooked, I used the handy email form and sent a message. According to the web site I was to get an answer within 2 hours because Northwest has live agents on duty 24/7. I thought that was great service.

When I didn't get an answer by the next morning, some 14 hours later, I was slightly concerned. I knew from watching the news Northwest had been experiencing flight delays and cancellations because of a pilot shortage and bad weather. I thought it prudent to call. That's where my frustration started.

I'm used to automated phone systems, but I still don't like them at all. I especially hate the ones which want you to speak your selection. That just really gets me. It's a machine, for cryin' out loud. Some of them will skip you right to a real person if you hit the zero button enough times. Not this one, though.

So I went through the menu from flight information to reservation confirmations. Here's where the real fun started.

I was given a reservation similar to "3LBB9P." Every time I tried to say the letters and numbers, the machine at the other end got it wrong. "Did you say "3LDDB ... 3LPP9B ... 3LBD9Z?" Finally, after 3 or 4 tries the machine tells me it will connect me to a real person. To which, I got another recording telling me about extra-heavy call volume and my call could not be completed. Hang up.

At this point, I'm a little irritated. But, foolish me, I decide to try it again. I go through the whole mess again, even trying to say my reservation code in the international phonetic alphabet, "Three, Lima, Bravo, Bravo, Niner, Papa" to no avail. And again, I got the "extra-heavy call volume" message and the disconnect.

I'm really ticked off by now, but I had enough sense to quit trying for the time being. Thankfully, I got a reply in my email a little bit after the last call which let me know the reason I couldn't choose seats is because I bought them from another vendor and had to wait until check-in to choose seats. That was not a problem to me because I wasn't too concerned so much about picking seats as I was that the flight would be messed up and I might end up wasting my vacation waiting around in airports. In the end, I checked in on line and was able to choose seats.

Northwest IT/Telecom Folks: Either get a different way to enter reservation numbers or change the codes so we don't have to rely on a computer to differentiate between very like-sounding letters. Even live, human people have trouble hearing the difference between "B," "D," or "P" over the phone. I know I'm not the only one to experience this mess, so do something about it.

One thing I could have tried, but didn't, was to say "Agent" over and over. That works for the electric company's phone system. If I have to call Northwest again, I'll try to remember that trick.

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