Video: Woman: N.Y.’s slow snow response killed my mom

Image: Luggage
Andrew Gombert  /  EPA
An American Airlines worker helps travelers with luggage at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, on Wednesday.
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updated 12/29/2010 6:13:42 PM ET 2010-12-29T23:13:42

Travelers are lashing out at airlines for poor customer service after this week's storm on the East Coast left thousands stranded and unable to get through to reservation agents.

Travelers are incensed over what they say is the airlines' effort to blame everything on the weather and take themselves off the hook.

Video: Northeast struggles to dig out of blizzard mess (on this page)

"We don't blame the airlines or airports for bad weather, but it's their responsibility to be prepared," said Brandon Macsata of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. "The airlines just seem to be saying, 'Suck it up.' People are tired of sucking it up."

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Travelers calling to rebook flights earlier this week in huge numbers were put on hold for hours or told to call back later because the major airlines have fewer reservations agents to take their calls.

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For example, Continental cut 600 call-center jobs — nearly one-fourth of its 2,600 reservations workers — in February. A few months before that, it closed a center in Florida and cut 500 jobs. American Airlines cut about 500 when it closed a center in Connecticut.

United Airlines has 10,000 customer-service and reservations employees, down from about 15,000 in the early 2000s, according to Rich Delaney, president of the machinists' union, which represents the workers. United once had 17 reservations offices; it now has three, he said.

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The airlines cut staff because so many people now book tickets online. The airlines themselves encouraged the trend by charging customers a fee to book over the phone.

US Airways imposed mandatory overtime for customer-service workers to handle calls during the storm. American Airlines said it asked people to cut short vacations and extended the hours of part-time workers at call centers and airports.

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It still wasn't enough to handle a volume of calls that was more than twice as high as usual, according to American spokesman Ed Martelle. By Wednesday, the airline had things under control, he said.

Travelers, many of them visibly exhausted after living at the airport for two or three days, said they were unable to get basic information from airline employees.

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"I waited four hours in the queue just to speak to someone — just to get the news that I have to wait a few more days," said Tommy Mokhtari, who was stranded at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport while trying to get home to Dubai. "They really need to have a backup plan.

Some travelers had better luck calling travel agents back home instead of dealing with airline agents standing a few feet away.

Slideshow: The East Coast digs out (on this page)

Major U.S. airlines have canceled more than 9,400 flights since Saturday. The airlines have declined to say how many passengers have been put out, but given that many holiday-week flights were sold out, an estimate of more than 1 million is not unreasonable.

Airport traffic was flowing more smoothly on Wednesday, allowing the airlines to add a few extra flights at New York-area airports. Still, it could be days before all the displaced passengers finally get where they were going. Some will not get on a flight until after New Year's Day.

As the airlines cut call center jobs in recent years, they also eliminated flights and grounded planes to meet the reduced demand for travel during the recession. Those leaner schedules helped the airlines earn handsome profits this summer but left them with less capacity to handle the backlog of passengers stranded in New York and Philadelphia by this week's storm.

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Planes operated by Cathay Pacific and British Airways spent over seven hours on the tarmac at JFK airport on Monday night. Airport officials said the airlines had taken off for New York without first ensuring that they had a gate assignment after landing.

British Airways spokesman John Lampl acknowledged that a flight carrying 300 passengers left London on Monday night without a JFK gate assignment, but the crew didn't think that would be a problem. "Normally a gate is available," he said.

U.S. airlines operating domestic flights can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for tarmac delays longer than three hours, but the rule doesn't apply to international flights or foreign airlines. Passenger-rights groups are lobbying the U.S. Transportation Department to extend the penalties to all flights to and from the U.S., but the proposal is opposed by the International Air Transport Association, which represents foreign airlines.

Samantha Henry in New York and AP Airlines writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The East Coast digs out

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  1. Snow covers the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 4 on Tuesday, Dec. 28, in New York City. Flights have slowly started to resume in New York but lines to rebook have been long. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. People sleep and eat on the floor while waiting for a flight at Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport Tuesday. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A New Jersey Transit train arrives at the Princeton Junction station Tuesday in West Windsor, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A front-end loader removes snow in New York's Times Square on Tuesday ahead of New Year festivities. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A doorman shovels a path on the east side of Manhattan on Tuesday after the blizzard dropped 20 inches of snow in the area. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dave Duncan sits in his Honda Civic, buried on the street, in Asbury Park, N.J., on Tuesday. (Beth Defalco / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Travelers wait in ticketing lines at New York's LaGuardia airport on Tuesday. (Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Icicles melt in the afternoon sun as temperatures rise into the high 30s Tuesday in Hamilton, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. This traveler at Miami International Airport was among the many waiting Tuesday for flights after the Northeast blizzard caused backups across the country. (Jeffrey Boan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A young person sleds down a snow covered hill at Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia on Monday. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Travelers carry their luggage through a snow bank on 7th Ave. in front of Penn Station after a snow storm in New York, Dec. 27. A blizzard pummeled the Northeast on Monday, dumping up to 29 inches of snow, disrupting air and rail travel and challenging motorists with blowing snow and icy roads at the end of the busy Christmas weekend. New York City, eastern New Jersey and western Long Island were the hardest hit by the storm. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A windswept beach looks desolate following a snow storm on Monday in Westport, Conn. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Children play on a mound of snow on The Boardwalk, Dec. 27, in Atlantic City, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Gregg Smith shovels out after a heavy snowfall in the Boston suburb of Marlborough, Mass., Dec. 27. A powerful East Coast blizzard menaced would-be travelers by air, rail and highway Monday, leaving thousands without a way to get home after the holidays. (Bill Sikes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Alexa Canning and Talia Quinn fly through the air after hitting a jump on their sleds in Norfolk, Massachusetts. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A man shovels snow on a street along the Brooklyn waterfront, Dec. 27, in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Commuters, who were trapped over night, sit on parked trains at Penn Station in New York City on Monday. (Andrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A woman exercises in a snow covered pasture in Durham, N.C., Monday, after a powerful East Coast blizzard that moved through Christmas day. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A strong gust of wind blows snow in front of a man in Philadelphia, Monday. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A woman walks her dog between snowed-in taxicabs following a major blizzard in Manhattan's Greenwich Village on Monday in New York City. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Elena Amaral shovels steps at Trinity College during the storm in Hartford, Conn., Monday. (Jessica Hill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A homeowner clears snow from the end of his driveway, Dec. 27, in Norfolk, Mass., following the blizzard which brought more than a foot of snow in the Boston area. The storm dumped snow from Atlanta, Ga. to Maine. (Matt Campbell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Michael Howard of Albany, N.Y., shovels out his vehicle on Monday. (Mike Groll / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A woman walks through the snow in Manhattan's East Village in the early hours of Monday. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A New Jersey state trooper arrives to help after cars crash during heavy snowfall on Sunday near Columbus, N.J. (Mel Evans / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A worker clears snow from the seats at the Philadelphia Eagles stadium. (Tim Shaffer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The storm moved up from the south, where areas like Raleigh, N.C., saw snow over the weekend as well. (Jim R. Bounds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Timeline: Top travel stories of 2010

From a volcano that disrupted air travel across Europe to Steve Slater's infamous exit on a JetBlue emergency chute, here's a look at the top travel stories of the year.

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