Published: Jan 13, 2011 10:57 PM EST
Updated: Jan 13, 2011 7:58 PM EST

Airline call centers did a better job of helping passengers during this week's snow storm, although that's largely because there were fewer passengers in need of help.

Airlines increasingly prefer to communicate with passengers by e-mail and social media and have reduced the number of call-center operators. That left the centers unprepared when thousands of holiday travelers were stranded by the Northeast blizzard.

 Some airline 800-numbers were jammed and stopped taking calls. Delta's website went down, preventing travelers from rebooking on their own.

This time the system seems to have worked better. The airlines added staff and lengthened hours at call centers, but the biggest reason may be that planes are less-crowded in the second week of January.

The toll-free numbers at airlines including Delta, American and Continental - three that failed during the post-Christmas storm - appeared to be working Thursday, a day after 4,000 flights were canceled, half of them in the New York City area.

The airlines may have taken a lesson from the December experience.

Delta Air Lines extended call centers hours, keeping some open around the clock, said spokesman Anthony Black. Continental brought in 400 extra people including managers and extended the hours of regular agents, spokesman Andrew Ferraro said.

US Airways exercised a clause in its labor contract with agents to require mandatory overtime, according to spokeswoman Valerie Wunder.

Those moves were prompted because U.S. airlines have cut about 160,000 jobs in the past decade, including thousands in call centers. They have nudged travelers to make reservations for themselves online by charging fees to book over the phone with an agent.

Delta and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, which have more than 9,000 reservations agents between them, declined to say how many calls they were getting. Both said volume was higher than normal but lower than during the December storm.

American spokesman Tim Smith said calls this week also were typically shorter than last month because agents could quickly find open seats on later flights. That's because there were more open seats.

American's load factor, or average occupancy per flight, falls about 5 percentage points between December and the slower travel month of January. The drop-off is even bigger, 15 points or more, after the holiday rush in late December.

 With more open seats on later flights, this week's stranded passengers should avoid the days-long delays that Northeast travelers endured in the last week of December.

Airlines now routinely ask customers when they book a flight for phone numbers and e-mail addresses to which the airline can send a text or e-mail message when a flight is canceled. Some have smartphone apps that let travelers book flights.

They are also assigning employees to monitor Twitter and help stranded passengers who post updates about their plight on social-media websites, although the handful of workers could quickly become overwhelmed, said Anne Banas of website SmarterTravel.

"Try the apps, try Twitter, try the phone, try them all," Banas said. "With thousands of cancelations, (the airlines) are not always prepared for the high volume of people who need to rebook." (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)