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Originally published January 22, 2014 at 11:39 AM | Page modified January 22, 2014 at 1:31 PM

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Going crazy from United’s on-hold music

“Rhapsody in Blue” played incessantly — and ruined — as passengers wait for customer-service agents to answer phone calls.


The New York Times

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After George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was born, it became a classic of the Jazz Age. But if you ask me, it died this month. The cause was overwork. “Rhapsody” would have been 90 years old on Feb. 12, the anniversary of its first performance in 1924.

OK, OK, maybe a beloved composition can’t actually be done in by an airline, in this case United Airlines, that incessantly pumps out a few bars of the theme as its tinny hold-music for travelers waiting interminably for a customer service agent to pick up. But from my own experiences and from those of readers I’ve been hearing from, many of us have heard enough.

“I never want to hear ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ ever again — I’m hearing it in my sleep,” said Frederick Rotgers, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey who spent eight hours on phone calls trying to rebook a canceled flight in Puerto Rico on Jan. 5.

“Hey, it’s a great song,” countered Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman, who said the airline added extra customer service representatives while “agents worked overtime” during that period of horrible weather this month. For all airlines, the volume of calls was overwhelming as people tried to rebook in a system that increasingly has little slack to accommodate mass disruption. Given the complications of so many canceled flights, each call was longer than usual.

United, to be fair, uses that wonderful Gershwin music — which it has been using since the 1980s after licensing “Rhapsody” from the composer’s estate — to soaring effect, and with far greater audio fidelity, in its advertising and other promotions.

But for an expert musical opinion on the hold-call version, I phoned a frequent United customer, pianist Emanuel Ax, who was on a concert tour on the West Coast during the nine-day period earlier this month when air travel basically froze. Nearly 28,000 flights were canceled, while tens of thousands of others were badly delayed, as customers struggled to get through to the airlines, which have roughly 30,000 flights a day.

“Dah-dah dee-dah,” Ax sang appreciatively, making the catchy tune sound a lot better on the phone than United does. “It’s the big tune, the big theme, in what I guess you would call the slow movement.”

He added: “The sad part is, even the Beethoven Fifth Symphony can be destroyed by Muzak treatment. Being repeated ad nauseam is probably not healthy for any music. And you can do damage to anything. Listen, I’ve murdered plenty of pieces myself over the years.”

Get a travel agent?

But maybe there is another approach to the frustration of waiting on hold for hours while tinny music assaults your ears: Just get a travel agent, some people are advising me.

After more than a decade of being encouraged to book your own travel arrangements, there may be a reason to rethink that, as the recent travel chaos showed.

Now, most large and midsize corporate travel departments book through management systems, including with agencies that provide personal assistance and can make speedy new arrangements when flights are scrubbed.

By choice, I book my own travel, which puts me in the company of the fastest-growing segment among business travelers: people who work for small businesses or who are entrepreneurs and among the ranks of the self-employed. While some do use travel management firms, most make their own arrangements.

Given the three hours my wife and I spent on hold trying to rebook a canceled flight in Atlanta during that mess a few weeks ago, the advice to get professional help has some resonance.

“If you had chosen to book through a travel agency, there would not have been any three-hour waits,” said Jerry Greenberg, a manager at Cassis Travel Services, a big agency in Los Angeles.

Paul Metselaar, chief executive of Ovation Travel Group, a major travel management firm, said his agents handled 6,303 calls and rebooked nearly 1,891 tickets from Jan. 2-6. He mentioned “the alternative, in this focused age, of reaching out to a travel professional for assistance, not to mention for a fee that is a fraction of what the airlines now charge” for checking bags or getting an aisle seat in coach.

Greenberg said his agency, which handles mostly high-end leisure travel, charges $40 to book a ticket and manage a reservation. “You have to know your resources,” said Greenberg, a travel agent for 41 years. “We have an airline coordinator and other specialists, and hotlines to the airlines.

“There’s an American rep who is here once or twice a month. A United rep, too, though not as frequently. The woman who comes in from Delta also handles KLM, Alitalia and Air France. These reps go around and talk to every agent in the place.”

Airlines talking to travel agents, I suppose, means that in a fix, a good travel agent can also talk to an airline. And do it without a long wait on hold, listening to an annoying song and dance, even if the music is by Gershwin.



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