The End of Airline 800 Numbers Could Be a Marketing Gold Mine

Last week I noted that Frontier Airlines is getting rid of its 800 number and should save $2 million a year.

As I wrote at the time, this seems totally reasonable to me. When is the last time you paid for domestic long distance? (I haven’t even had a home land line in ~ 15 years.)

Cranky Flier agrees but thinks eliminating 800 numbers makes an airline look cheap.

He notes that Spirit and Fronter

have gone a sleezier route. They’ve chosen the Utah area code of 801, which is suspiciously close to an 800 number.

I think this takes things in the wrong direction.

Changing from 800 numbers to cheaper local numbers (where airlines aren’t paying for all of the inbound calls) could be a perception win, not a way to look cheap.

Of course it’s silly to pay for inbound calls that nearly all of your callers would be getting for free. And if Frontier will be saving $2 million per year then American, Delta, and United’s savings would be huge. It’s low hanging fruit and money that would be better spent re-invested in product or returned to shareholders.

But even if booked straight to the bottom line it doesn’t have to be a perception problem. An airline could get a few local numbers. Delta could get a 212 number and advertise it in New York, “your hometown airline.” (After all, Newark ain’t 212).

Delta, United, and American should race to get and advertise a local number for Los Angeles too. The first one to do it wins market share in LA. American or United could do that in Chicago.

Where there’s a competitive hub it may make sense. Where there’s a monopoly hub, too — Delta should advertise its Atlanta number.

What’s more, airlines could promote this by cutting their telephone booking fee in half for a limited time when using their local number. Don’t get rid of the 800 number right away, just advertise and highlight the local alternate until you shift customer behavior. Promote it as a service to their local community. And donate 800 number savings to charities in those communities for a year.

After the transition period, people will forget that they no longer have an 800 number that they didn’t need anyway. It doesn’t have to look cheap, and customers will get used to it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. While yes most of us now have unlimited long distance, I think the point being missed is that in the two “conversions” to date, Spirit and now Frontier, they have both adopted an 801 or Salt Lake City exchange hoping that you might believe you are dialing a toll free number. So just another “smoke and mirrors” tactic attempting to fool people the airlines are so well known for!

  2. When I’ve been abroad I’ve used airline 800 numbers to deal with my reservation via skype so it was still free. That is really the only time its been useful. That being said, as long as they answer in a timely manner, paying for the call on skype would still be very inexpensive.

  3. I, for one, still pay for l.dist., and would very much resent the lack of a toll-free #. I would be especially mad if they are “close” to a free # and I am duped into thinking it will be toll-free. I think it’s one more instance of the never-ending parade of cost-shifting in OUR direction.

  4. If getting rid of toll free numbers allowed British Airways to have single contact number in each country it serves, which it then forwards to the call center currently open, I would be all for it. But then I could no longer get incredulous stares when I tell them that to book a flight to London, I had to call Japan.

  5. Could also be a substantive revenue generator. They pick numbers in expensive, rural areas, use SIP to haul those numbers to wherever their call centers are, and do revenue sharing with the local exchange carrier.

    It’s how all of those “free conference call” providers make money.

  6. I think that you have a great point. However, when I lived on a military base in Japan 800 numbers were my life blood. I could call from my desk phone without any charges and not have to deal with Google Voice dropping the call or terrible Skype quality (mostly due to the internet on base). They could keep an 800 number for international callers, such as my case, but route everyone else to the local phone number.

  7. Just hope you guys get to keep the local Numbers in the US! Here in Europe many filthy greedy Airlines like Swiss and Lufthansa have switched to 0900 Numbers. It’s not about paying a local Number anymore – it’s a premium Number.
    You pay for waiting on hold, and worse if you call from a Cell Phone you pay a even higher Fee for the 0900-Numbers.
    Customer Service if down the drain. Most Airlines start this in their Home Markets first. Even KLM offers a 0900-Number in Switzerland only. So for us is cheaper calling those Airlines at their US-Number…

  8. One other item of Trivia, if you call form a non toll free number you can block your personal number. When calling from a toll free the carrier will still collect your information since the called party is paying for the call. I don’t know if this has changed since I last tested it, it was the case previously and now I am curious when I get back home I will test it. For me I like the idea of using a non toll free number. I have had times while in other countries I need to reach a carrier and I only have the toll free number. In these situations you are out of luck.

  9. You’re showing your age if you think area codes have any marketing value. 800 numbers are usually easier to remember, identify as customer service lines, etc.

  10. Gary, I don’t think this is as easy as you make it sound. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t those airlines also have to have actual call centres in those area codes in order to reap the savings? If they’re forwarding that number, isn’t there also a cost associated with that? For example, let’s say that I live in Boston and call the 212 area code in your example and that call then gets routed to an offshore call centre in India/Philippines. I’m responsible for the Boston-New York call (probably free, but for people calling from a landline, there’s still a charge) and United is responsible for the New York-India/Philippines call cost. It may not get routed to India/Philippines, but it has to get routed somewhere as I doubt United maintains a call centre in the borough of Manhattan. Even routing that call to Chicago would incur a cost for the New York-Chicago portion, wouldn’t it?

  11. Costs for forwarding/routing calls to VOIP/SIP networks overseas is plenty low enough once you get around the issue of the fixed investment required to properly set up the networks and reliably keep them up to handle the volume of calls/bandwidth.

  12. @Gary – I see your point, but I think the problem here is federalism.

    Since the USA is a collection of fifty states, three territories, two commonwealths, one district (and a partridge in a pear tree…Ha! Ha!), there is no such thing as a system-wide national telephone for the USA, except 800 (888, 877, 866, etc) numbers. For as long as I can remember, Walt Disney World has advertised their number as area code 407, which is an MCO area code. I always thought as a kid that a multi-million (now billion) company couldn’t cough up the loose change among the couch cushion seats to pay for an 800 number was cheap, but I can somewhat see the argument now with mobile telephones. However, Disney World is known as a central Florida institution. It does not try to bill itself as a national theme park. That’s not the case with airline industry. There’s no longer Northwest Airlines, Allegheny Airlines, Air California, Air South, Florida Airlines, Midwest Airlines, etc. Names like Delta (geographical formations all over the world), American (as in the continent / nation), and United (as in all together) all sound like national or global airline names. Projecting that prowess means having a “national” (i.e., 800) telephone number. The only other solution would be to have at least 269 telephone numbers (one fore each area code, but, really, one for each exchange/local area) if the schtick is to market itself as local hometown hero.

    The only US carrier projecting a national image with a regional name would be Southwest. They are about the only company I could see that marketing tool work as they have consistently used that slogan, “We’re proud of our local origins and our local name as we want to be your local hero, too!”

  13. I’m pretty sure it used to be common that airlines had local numbers in big cities and hubs, in addition to the 800 number. In another area of business, Ticketmaster had local numbers even in medium-sized towns, but calls went to a central call center.

  14. Not sure how relevant it is, but I’ll add the point to my previous post: see old airline timetables at . TWA in 1981 gives local numbers for most of their destinations (LAX doesn’t need an area code; think of that), but some airports with few flights just show the 800 number.

  15. Week late here, but back in the 70s and early 80s the Airlines used to publish their telephone numbers in the yellow pages of the local airport. It was only the carriers that did not service that local airport would have 800 published. After hours the local numbers would go to the central numbers. I would actually talk to someone at my local airport to make a reservation (I could also go there and pick up my tickets!)

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