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Airline Mismanagement

Many people can tell you stories about bad travel agents that have given poor service.  Other people will secretively smile when they hear such stories and not share details of their travel agent, who they want to keep for themselves!

Travel agents can be even more helpful in the 'information explosion' that we are all otherwise confronted with. A good travel agent will save you time AND money.

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Travel Agents - Obsolete or Essential?

There are several different trade groups that travel agents might belong to.

By far the best group is ARTA - if you are dealing with an ARTA agency you're much more likely to be dealing with an agency that is equipped to best help you.

Part 1 of a 5 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five



The airlines seem to be doing their best to drive travel agencies out of business.

And with the growth in convenient seeming internet travel services, do you even still need a traditional travel agent?

Although many people have assumed the answer to this question to be no, and particularly when this article was first written in March 2002, it is interesting to note in the years subsequent to then the travel agency community has successfully redefined itself and is now a stronger force in the marketplace once more.

The Real Reason the Airlines hate Travel Agencies

The airlines say that they can't afford to pay travel agents a 5% commission (up to a maximum of $20 per ticket) and so most major carriers have now stopped paying commissions entirely. But, if the airline sells the ticket to you themselves via their (800) service, they have probably incurred $20 in costs (the cost of the phone call, the cost of the employee, related costs for supervisors, etc, etc) by selling it to you directly. Even more strangely, although they 'can't afford' to pay up to $20 to a travel agent, they can offer as much as a 10% discount (with no limit) off all their fares if you buy from their website. It doesn't make sense, does it.

Update 2008 :  The airlines figured this out.  It costs them money to sell you a ticket too.  So, what do they do?  Start paying travel agents again?  Oh no!  Instead, they now will charge you an extra fee to sell you a ticket through their reservations number.  Yes, they are probably the only retail industry in the world that now charges you extra if you choose to buy the product they sell, direct from them.

Read on to understand the real reason that the airlines are keen to drive you away from travel agents and to force you to deal directly with them.

The reality is that there is a major 'cost' to the airlines which travel agents cause them - a cost they are desperate to hide and eliminate. And, what is that cost? It is the cost of losing revenue every time a travel agent advises a client how to save money on an airfare (for example, by changing routing or flight times), and/or the lost revenue every time a travel agent advises a client about a more convenient schedule or a lower fare on a competing airline.  With the difference in two fares being potentially the difference between perhaps $300 and $1500, good advice from a travel agent can 'cost' the airline (and save you!) a huge amount more than just $20.

Let me ask you this : When was the last time you called an airline to book a flight, and the reservations agent at the other end said 'Oh, sir, I think I should volunteer the information that there is a flight on one of our competitors that leaves at the same time, but which flies nonstop instead of requiring a change in plane, and with a fare $250 cheaper than our fare.'???  No, instead, if you ask about other airlines, they'll stifle a giggle and say 'I'm sorry, but our computer system doesn't have that information'.  That, in a nutshell, is the difference between booking direct with an airline or with a travel agency.

These hidden 'costs' (ie when their otherwise captive clients are free to choose what is best for themselves rather than what is best for the airline) are potentially huge to the airlines - and this is what they want to eliminate.  They want to deprive you - their customers - of access to the best comparison information and expert advice that could otherwise save you huge amounts of time, trouble, and money.

How (good) Travel Agents Help You

Good travel agents don't just find you 'the lowest published fare' and 'the most convenient itinerary', although if this was all they ever did, you'd still want to use them all the time.  Here's a list of some other things that good travel agents can sometimes (but not always) help you with.  Note that this list only relates to airline travel, there's much more that agents can do when helping you with cars, hotels, tours, cruises, etc.

  • Negotiate with an airline to make available seats on flights that are otherwise sold out

  • Get you priority wait listing on flights

  • Negotiate with an airline to get you a lower fare even though it is showing sold out in the computer

  • Help you to get the best seat pre-assignments possible

  • Treat you as a person and provide, in turn, personal service; and use their personal knowledge of your likes/dislikes/preferences to ensure that your travel plans best match your needs

  • Pro-actively monitor your flights and fare and tell you if better itineraries or fares come along

  • Act as your advocate in dispute and problem resolution

  • Be available for emergency problems and flight changes

  • Can sometimes obtain discounted consolidated tickets on domestic flights

  • Can almost always obtain discounted consolidated tickets for international flights

An Airline Rep Confesses

I was talking on the phone with an airline representative earlier this week, and we were joking about lost luggage problems (a sick sort of subject to joke about!).  She then told me about a couple that had their luggage disappear for their entire two week international vacation, being found literally on the day they flew back home again.  I said, jokingly 'so, what did you do for them - give them a free amenities kit and toothbrush?'.  She said 'No, I upgraded them to business class for their international flights back to the US!'.  I was staggered by this, and asked what had made her do such an amazingly fair and generous thing.  Her answer : 'I knew their travel agent.  She called me and talked me into it!'

Think about this - because that couple booked through a travel agent, they had more bargaining power and ended up not only with a fair amount of cash compensation during their travels to buy clothing, etc, but also got business class travel back home again.  What do you think would have happened if they hadn't used a travel agent?  Yes, they'd still be waiting on hold while calling a 'baggage tracking service' somewhere trying to get an update on their claim!

You Get the Agent you Deserve!

If you want your travel agent to be truly helpful, then you need to open up and share all your plans and desires and needs with the agent, and encourage the agent to in turn 'go the extra mile' to help you.  As a former travel agent for ten years, I met just about every possible type of client, from almost literally screaming lunatics, through drunks, couples fighting out a divorce in front of me, paranoid types that didn't trust me and who were convinced I was trying to trick them into spending too much money and so on.  And then there were all the people that almost served me with a lawsuit before walking in the door, and who then threatened lawsuits continually before, during and after their travels.  I hasten to add that (perhaps surprisingly) no-one ever filed!

But, I also met many lovely nice people who were a delight to work with.  Guess who got the best service?  Yes, the polite, pleasant, courteous, and friendly clients who went out of their way to help me to help them.

And, that is the key phrase.  You need to help your agent to help you.  And also encourage them to realize that their work on your behalf will not be wasted - that you truly are going to buy travel from them and that the time they spend working for you will be rewarded.  If you do these things, even an ordinary agent will become good, and a good agent will become extraordinary.

Different Types of Travel Agent

There is no such thing as a perfect travel agent, able to help you with all your travel needs.  Don't try and find such a person. Instead, break your travel needs into categories, and seek agents who can help you best in each category.  Our series on how to choose a travel agency and travel agent helps you find the best travel agent and agency for your needs.

Read more in the rest of this series

In Part 2 we explain that the airlines' zeroing travel agent commissions isn't just an attempt to kill off travel agents, but also an attempt to kill off smaller airlines.  Both ways, you're the real loser.

In Part 3 we talk about the bad reputation travel agents generally suffer from, and why some of it is fair, but much of it is very unfair.

In Part 4 we offer some solutions to the problems the travel agency industry is currently facing.

Part 5 represents a bringing together of both this article series and also the series on how to choose a travel agent and agency, and talks about ways in which you can now best use travel agency services.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 29 March 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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