Suppliers, regulators, automakers and consumers are struggling to understand the scope and implications of a defect in Takata airbags that has led to recalls of millions of vehicles. For Honda and Acura dealers, it’s a chore just to keep up with the phone calls.
Their service departments have been facing increased pressure since Honda said on Dec. 3 it would go national with the recall for potentially explosive driver-side front airbags in certain vehicles. That recall had been limited to 11 states with humid climates but now covers about 5.4 million Honda and Acura vehicles across the U.S.
Dealers say their phones have been ringing nonstop with calls from concerned drivers who haven’t yet received a recall notice in the mail. Some dealerships have added staff to help field phone calls and set appointments while others are mobilizing for an uptick in service business as more customers receive their letters.
“I think the telephone has been everybody’s challenge,” said Jeffrey Hodge, president of Honda World Downey in Downey, Calif., southeast of Los Angeles. The dealership has hired two additional associates to help field calls as it handles an average of 20 airbag replacements daily.
Hodge’s dealership has been able to replace airbags within 24 to 48 hours of receiving a call from customers whose vehicles have been recalled. So far, the dealership has been able to get parts from the factory quickly and provide loaners to customers, though “we’ve only served a small percentage” of all affected vehicles, Hodge said.
“Our goal is, if we get a phone call, to order the parts ahead of time,” Hodge said. “It’s probably most taxing on a service adviser. They need to promptly greet the customer, write the repair order and dispatch it to the technician.”
The job takes about an hour. But the extra time spent on recall-related work — from looking up the VINs for callers to washing every vehicle the dealership services — will add up as Honda continues to mail notices to drivers.
“At first, we were getting a lot of customer calls to see if their car was on the recall list,” said John Connelly, president of Acura Columbus in Ohio. “It does involve a lot of time reassuring people.”
Honda began mailing notices to customers as part of its original safety campaign in September and will continue to send notification letters over time, “prioritized by geographic area in the order of highest perceived risk,” the automaker said.
While confusion over the notification timetable is an added burden for dealerships, it may also present an opportunity to boost service business and attract new customers, analysts said.
“Other than an occasional angry customer and a lot of phone calls, recalls are very good for dealers because they get an immense amount of highly profitable parts and service work that the automaker pays 100 percent of,” said David Whiston, an analyst with Morningstar.
“Consumers just have to wait, often too long, for a part to be available and then give up some time to come in for the repair, but it does not cost them any money,” he said, adding: “Some consumers may come in and end up buying a new car, too.”