Wednesday about 10:30 a.m., working the phones. Lines are clear at American and Southwest airlines, but at Delta I get a busy signal on the first try, then on the second call find myself waiting on hold for 4 minutes, 5 seconds before an operator materializes to give domestic reservation information. Calling United a moment later, I spend 1 minute and 30 seconds on hold before getting an operator.
This is vacation-booking season. But if your vacation plans depend on getting hold of a cheap air fare, the odds are good that you'll be enduring busy-signal season or Muzak-on-hold season, or both, before any vacationing can begin.
To fill that time, you may start asking yourself questions. How many busy signals am I willing to hear in order to get a $250 round-trip ticket to New York? How long will I wait on hold to land an $800 LAX-London-LAX fare in peak season? When should I be calling? And just how many operators do the airlines and discount ticket agencies really have on duty?
Some answers: Remember, millions of business travelers are out there, making their bookings during business hours, especially on Mondays. Instead, dial those toll-free numbers in the early morning or late evening hours--but beware of Sunday nights, which also can be busy.
Also beware of heavy-travel holidays, days when bad weather is disrupting flight schedules, and the end of the calendar year, which is clogged not only by Christmas travelers but frequent fliers scrambling to convert expiring miles. And of course, if you're calling a discount agency or you're trying to take advantage of a big airline fare sale, brace yourself. You're probably going to trade a minute or two, or five, for that money saved.
The tidbits above come from officials at several major airlines. Some of those officials' other observations reveal the massive scale of the airline industry phone-reservation system. At American Airlines, which sold $14.3 billion worth of tickets last year, the carrier's reservations line gets about 350,000 calls per day, which are routed to as many as 8,000 operators per day (with up to 4,700 working at one time), in six reservation centers across the U.S., estimates company spokesman Tim Smith.
Thursday afternoon, 5 o'clock. It might seem a logical time for half the country to be planning weekend travels, but no. American, Delta, Southwest and United operators all answer within 15 seconds.
In "the overwhelming majority" of calls to American, an operator is on the line within 20 seconds, Smith says. Fewer than half of the incoming calls actually yield bookings; most are customers comparing prices, or families checking on arrival times and so on. (To check an arrival time and avoid the reservations crush, call American's "dial-a-flight" line at  223-5436.)
At United Airlines, with 7,000 operators at 17 reservation centers, spokeswoman Mary Jo Holland states the same 20-seconds goal, though she gave no figures on the airline's success rate. Best times to call are weekends and in the early morning on weekdays. Busiest hours are generally weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (that's Pacific Standard Time, as are all times in this column). Holland also points out that major television broadcasts can be an opportunity: Calls to airlines often nose dive during big sporting events and other heavily watched programs.
At Delta, says spokewoman Tracey Bowen, about 3,000 ticket agents answer calls during peak hours, and the carrier's goal is to answer 80% of calls within 50 seconds. The busiest hours for the Atlanta-based carrier are 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
At Southwest, spokeswoman Linda Rutherford reports that the company's goal is to get an operator on the line within 18 seconds, and "we hit that most of the time." Southwest has nine reservation centers across the U.S., and, like its competitors, is remarkably variable in staffing: On a Monday at 10 a.m., Rutherford says, Southwest has 2,928 agents handling calls; while on a Saturday morning, between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., just 60 agents are on duty--yet the wait for callers might well be shorter.
Lunchtime Wednesday. A call to air fare discounter Cheap Seats waits on hold for 5 minutes, 5 seconds, then is rewarded by a quote of an LAX-New York round-trip fare of $285 on American Airlines. About the same time, a call to competitor Cheap Tickets yields a busy signal. The next try, 10 minutes later, yields a wait on hold of 3 minutes, 5 seconds, and then a quote of $297, also on American, for LAX-New York travel on the same July days. (The best fare American offers that same hour is $315.)
At Cheap Seats and Cheap Tickets--discount ticket agencies that are used more by leisure travelers than business travelers--busy signals are more frequent and phone patterns are harder to predict. One Cheap Seats operator tells me lines are busiest on weekends and Mondays, and that mornings are busier than afternoons and evenings. But a Cheap Tickets operator says weekends are completely unpredictable, and that the best time to call is weekdays from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. (I'm not endorsing those companies over other ticket outlets, by the way, just using them as examples.)
One way to avoid phone waits is to do all your research and reservations via computer online--but most consumers aren't ready for that yet. Another way is to use a travel agent who will face those terrors on your behalf, which three of every four U.S. travelers do. But if you don't trust anybody else to handle the job, or if you're spending so little that it's not worth the agent's time, delegating the phone work to an agent may not be an option.
"It seems to me that a minute or two [on hold] is not unreasonable," says Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. "And 10 minutes is unreasonable." The answer probably lies somewhere in between. In order to get a substantially reduced fare through a discount agency, he accepts a sort of "mental trade-off" and can live with a wait of three to four minutes.
Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail email@example.com.