April 11, 2007

US Airways adds agents

After two high-profile customer service meltdowns, and with passenger traffic surging, US Airways is increasing the number of ticket and gate agents at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport by more than 10 percent.

After agents struggled to handle long lines last month caused by the airline's switch to a new reservations system, as well as a surprise late winter storm, US Airways President Scott Kirby said staffing in Charlotte was adequate.

But the airline placed nine new agents in Charlotte this week and has 40 more in a seven-week training class. The hires were made to handle the busy summer traffic season, but they also were in response to lobbying by airline officials in Charlotte, said airline spokeswoman Michelle Mohr.

The airline's agents in Charlotte will increase from 450 to 499.

"It's going to take a lot of stress off the agents as soon as they (the new hires) get on the floor," said Janice Garris, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 3641, which represents the airline's agents at Charlotte/Douglas.

Ticket agents are responsible for tagging luggage and helping passengers check in to flights, among other duties. Those who work at gates board planes and juggle seat assignments.

In early March, US Airways switched to a new reservations system -- a change that left many of its self-service kiosks not working. Agents had to do work usually handled by machines, and there were long lines.

Two weeks later, a storm caused delays throughout its system. More than 3,000 people slept at Charlotte/Douglas on a Saturday night, and many passengers needed to be rebooked on different flights. Agents said the lines were especially long because the new Shares system couldn't handle rebookings as quickly as the old reservations system, Sabre.

During both malfunctions, the airline's ticket and gate agents said they were woefully understaffed to handle a crisis. They also said they struggle to handle passengers even on normal days.

The number of agents in Charlotte has been steady since before the merger with America West in fall 2005, Mohr said.

During US Airways' second bankruptcy, in 2004, the airline laid off some agents and replaced them with kiosks.

While the number of agents had been steady, airline traffic at Charlotte has been increasing rapidly. In the past six months, Charlotte/Douglas has added passengers at a greater rate than any other American airport, according to an Observer analysis.

In the first two months of this year, Charlotte/Douglas handled 16 percent more passengers compared with the same period a year ago. On average, that's an additional 11,000 passengers passing through the airport each day.

US Airways has more than 80 percent of the airport's daily flights, so its agents have handled most of that increase.

After the problems with the reservations system switch, US Airways installed some new check-in computers in unused space at its ticketing counter. It also installed four new kiosks that can be used during peak times.

Mohr said the airline still "has anomalies" with its reservations system but that overall things are working smoothly.

Traffic Up

Charlotte's passenger traffic has grown faster than any other large American airport in the past six months, compared with the same period a year ago.

1. Charlotte/Douglas +13.4 percent (+1.7 million passengers)

2. New York-Kennedy +9.6 percent (+1.9 million passengers)

3. Denver +6.5 percent (+1.4 million)

By Steve Harrison. Contact: sharrison@charlotteobserver.com
Via: www.charlotteobserver.com

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