Long line at SIA service centre, more calls to travel agents ahead of VTL ticket sales freeze

Many had been trying to buy tickets or amend their existing tickets. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Long queues formed at the Singapore Airlines (SIA) service centre in Orchard Road on Wednesday (Dec 22) shortly after the announcement that airlines will no longer be allowed to sell new tickets for vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flights into Singapore from Thursday to Jan 20.

Meanwhile, at least one travel agency had to field calls from worried customers and ask operations staff to return to the office to help issue flight tickets before the 11.59pm deadline.

Several of those who were in line at SIA's service centre in Ion Orchard on Wednesday afternoon told The Straits Times that they had been queueing for hours.

They said they decided to go to the centre after they had difficulties getting through to the national carrier's hotline.

Many had been trying to buy tickets or amend their existing tickets.

Mr Elvis Chua, 23, an undergraduate, spent about six hours waiting to make a few simple clarifications regarding his return flight next year from the US, where he will be taking up an internship.

Mr Chua said: "My legs are quite painful from all the waiting around, but thankfully the service staff are quite nice."

His friend, Mr Leo Chang Jing, 24, believed the long wait was likely because many people had turned up to try to get VTL tickets.

Both men were able to get their issues settled and left by 5.30pm.

A man who wanted to be known only as Mr Rahman had been at the SIA service centre for about four hours from 1pm when ST spoke to him.

He had spent three hours trying to get through to SIA using two different phones but to no avail.

"I'm not here to get new VTL tickets. I'm just trying to get my brother's name changed because of an existing error on his ticket," said Mr Rahman, who declined to give his age.

He said his brother, a Singaporean in Bangladesh, plans to return on an SIA flight on Dec 25.

"It was impossible to get through via the phones, so I decided to come down here instead, but it's just as long of a wait," he said. "I'm willing to pay, but the wait has been really long and it doesn't look like it'll be resolved soon."

Others told ST that some people in line had raised their voices in frustration over the long wait, but the staff at the centre were quick to calm them down, offering to take down their numbers and call them back as soon as possible.

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Security personnel had also doubled as customer service staff, informing those in the queue of estimated wait times and asking if their queries were urgent.

The scene at the SIA service centre on Wednesday was reminiscent of that in October, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Oct 9 that travel curbs would be eased.

Many had rushed to the centre to get tickets after booking hotlines were backed up and the SIA website faced technical difficulties from the surge in traffic.

Responding to ST's queries, SIA declined to comment on booking numbers due to commercial sensitivity.

It added that the high volume of queries meant that it may take a few hours for its representatives to attend to customers.

"Customers who wish to get assistance at our Ion service centre will be given a queue number and will be informed via SMS when their turn is coming up," it added.

The airline urged customers who have booked directly with SIA to ask for assistance using its online assistance form, as this will help its agents to focus on travellers with bookings for flights that are imminent first.

Mr Ong Hanjie, managing director of tour agency EU Holidays, said he had to recall four members of his operations team to help issue flight tickets to customers before the freeze on new VTL ticket sales kicks in at 11.59pm on Wednesday.

There was a rush to confirm flight bookings and that tickets were issued, Mr Ong said, adding that customers had visited the travel agency's office in Suntec City after the news broke.

"We had an increase in calls from existing customers who had already booked tours with us that are departing during the Dec 23 to Jan 20 period. Most were worried that their vacations would not be fulfilled," he added.

There have not been any cancellations so far, he said.

Mr Ong said the freeze on new flight ticket sales means a loss in potential income as his firm cannot increase the size of group tours or create new tours even if there is demand to travel between Dec 23 and Jan 20.

A reduction in the number of VTL tickets allowed to be sold for flights after Jan 21 would also impact the agency's bottom line, he said.

Mr Jeremiah Wong, senior marketing communications manager at Chan Brothers, said his travel agency has not had any increase in calls from customers.

But Wednesday's announcement would inevitably affect those looking to travel last-minute between end-2021 and January next year.

Mr Wong said sales of Chinese New Year and March holiday packages are not affected for now as the return flights for these packages fall outside the affected period of Dec 23 to Jan 20.

"Travel sentiments have no doubt been affected and the travel industry again has to bear the brunt of this new Covid-19 variant," he said.

"That said, we remain optimistic and have been bracing ourselves for the road to recovery despite it being riddled with potholes. We continue to monitor the evolving situation closely."

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