Note : More reader replies can also be found on the page with feedback from the second article in this series
Here's your chance to join the fray and be heard. You can respond to my columns and share your own opinions and insight.
Jill from CWT-Viking Travel in Thiensville WI writes : I'm up at 4.30am this morning, so as to keep up on things. Although I've been a travel agent for 32 years, I'm still enjoying it and still finding new ways to help my clients. You forgot a few things in your "good things about agents list" :
David replies : Just to explain some of what Jill says : Many travel agents can void a ticket a day or two or three after they have issued it. Airlines will never do that - once you've bought the ticket, it is yours! And her point about looking at multiple airports is that sometimes it is cheaper to fly into a nearby airport than the airport you first specify - as a local agent, she is much more familiar with such things and more willing to help than an airline reservations agent in a call center, possibly on the other side of the country.
Linda from Jetway World Travel in Chicago IL writes : During the September 11 tragedy, I had clients that were scheduled to return from their honeymoon in Aruba on the 11th. I got them home on the 15th. They called me from Puerto Rico when their flight got delayed and I was able to work with a Flyaway Tours rep and get them on the last nonstop out of San Juan. When they returned home they told me that out of all of the couples stuck in Aruba, only 2 couples got out before the 18th. Both couples had travel agents working in the States for them. The others got their tickets online. . .and so it goes.
Cheryl from TraveLink Services in Orlando FL writes : Thank you for your article. As a hard working and now struggling travel agent for almost 20 years, I speak from the heart when I say I hope your words have touched many of your column's readers. While the travel industry has shifted dramatically in the past 10 years, I still love my job. And the part I love best is the interaction with my clients. I know where on the plane they want to sit, special meals, kids. You name it travel related (and occasionally non-travel related, too!), I know about it if they have told me.
This industry has also changed from one whose owners used to lawyer's and doctor's wives and absent owners looking for all the "perks" of the industry. (We both know they aren't what they used to be, don't we?). Most of the agencies have culled their agents to keep only the ones who consider the job a profession not a cheap way to see the world.
We who work for or own the independent travel agencies in the United States are struggling right now to keep those agencies open. When the airlines zeroed commissions for North American travel agents only (but allowing Afghani or S African, Brazilian or any other international agency to earn commissions on selling the product), we rightly were angry. We knew our value. Some of our clients knew our value. Thank you for pointing out to the readers of your column that we DO have a value in words they might actually understand!
Dara from Dream Destinations Travel writes : You ask a good question. How can the airlines not afford to pay me a measly $20 max, but pay more for their own reservation agents, etc to sell directly? Plus they then come out with occasional internet special fares that give them even less money than selling through travel agencies. Lastly, how can they explain this - they say that they 'can't afford' to pay US travel agents a commission any more, but they still pay agencies in Pakistan, the Philippines, China, etc. as much as 9% commission? As you say, there's another hidden reason why the airlines want to exclude us - because we are helping their customers to find better fares!
Bob from Mann Travel & Cruises writes :
HOW TO RUN AN AIRLINE:
1) Figure out how much it actually costs to fly from point A to point B, add a fair profit (and a margin for travel agent or other 'cost of sales'), and charge that.
2) Depart and land on time.
3) Maintain the highest levels of security and product maintenance.
4) Be nice to people.
Any questions, please re-read #1-4.
Chuck from On the Go Travel in Quincy, MA writes : The real cost of a travel agent to the airlines is the 'segment cost' that the travel agents incur when they book through the traditonal reservation systems (i.e. Sabre, Worldspan, etc.), a monster that the major carriers created for their own enrichment.
If I were to predict an outcome to this zero-commission policy, I would have to say that it will mark the end of the large CRS systems. I would bet that the major chain agencies will be offered web-based direct booking sources by the airlines in an attempt bypass the traditional, costly method now in place.
On another note, I would like to see an article on the role of ARC (Airline Reporting Corporation) in the airline industry. This seems to be the vehicle through which "competitive entities" are able to share information. I maintain that if ARC did not exist, that competition and fair play would return to the industry.
David replies : Just to explain some of what Chuck says : When a travel agent books a ticket for you, the computer system they use charges the airline as much as $3 per flight - on a typical roundtrip with change of plane, this could be $12. The computer system charges more for changing reservations and even potentially for canceling them, too; so the total cost to the airline could be $20 or more for a typical itinerary. Of course the airlines are keen to save this cost - but the computer reservation systems were all created by the airlines in the first place!
Steve from Topanga, CA writes : Thank you for your column. I have the most wonderful travel agent, who has indeed saved me thousands upon thousands of dollars, maybe even tens of thousands, over the years, and who does all the things you mention and more - getting advance-purchase waivers, hidden-city fares, voiding tickets to avoid penalties, etc. I am just so damned angry that the airlines get away with this kind of price-fixing (getting together to draw straws and saying - "OK, Delta, You go first so it doesn't look like we conspired on this") and that the travel agencies as a group are too weak to do anything about it. I mean, if they had all gone "on strike" when Delta started this two years ago for sure the airlines could not have handled picking up all the slack. So naturally they wait until they have enough people trained to use the internet that they think they can get away with it. (Notice that they have not dropped commissions in other parts of the world where there are fewer consumers on line.)
I suppose it is a fait accompli - but is there really nothing that agents can do to fight back?
David replies : The idea of a travel agent strike was discussed among some agents. Guess what happened? It appears it is illegal for travel agents to do such a thing!!! The airlines have monopoly exemption, enabling them to act together on pricing issues, but travel agencies are prohibited from acting together to try and then respond! Is that fair? No! But guess, also, who has the bigger lobbying budget on Capitol Hill?
Jo from Odyssey Travel in Skipjack, PA writes : Your article is the first one I've read that tells the absolute TRUTH about why the airlines have eliminated commissions to agents. Thank you very much for a well-written article.
Are you aware that overseas agents are still being paid by the US carriers, while American taxpaying agents are not? The taxpayer funds to 'bail out' the airlines are now being sent off-shore to pay commissions to foreign agencies - imagine an agency owned by bin Laden making a profit when Americans do not! Aren't the US carriers now potentially aiding terrorist nations? Ironic, isn't it.
Eric from somewhere on the Internet writes : You write that ARTA is the best travel agent group, but I understand that Virtuoso - accepting only 1% of agents - is the best. Is ARTA an overseas-based group. In the U.S., ASTA is the main trade group.
David replies : I've never heard of Virtuoso but from searching the web, discover that it is an agency consortium or buying group or even just travel agency with branches. It is not an agency association. The fact that I've never heard of Virtuoso does rather argue against its value!
ASTA is the largest travel agency group in the US. But since when does 'bigger' mean 'better'? It sure doesn't in airline terms! :) I was a member of ASTA for almost eleven years, paying them many thousands of dollars in membership fees, and got almost nothing back in return; indeed, the one time I had a bona fide issue that I needed their help with, they ran for cover and refused to help, for fear of upsetting and angering an airline!!! Joe Brancatelli accurately described them in his last week's column as 'inept'. On the other hand, ARTA provides a wealth of membership support services - including even a daily email to its members, something that much larger ASTA completely fails to do (as far as I am aware).
ARTA is smaller but also much more aggressive in servicing its members and helping its travel agency members to do a better job, in turn, of protecting their clients' rights. While it probably doesn't make a huge amount of difference to ordinary travelers whether their agency belongs to ASTA or ARTA or neither (or both!), I do urge travel agencies that read this to consider joining ARTA.
Donna from somewhere on the internet writes : Great article. I , for one, will not travel with an airline that does not pay commissions to agents. The taxpayers gave the airlines a bail out and the airlines turn around and bail out on travel agents. Now that travel is picking up again the airlines can hire back but travel agents are unemployed.
David replies : Donna raises a good point - many of the smaller (and better!) carriers and most of the foreign carriers continue to pay agency commissions. If it is not too inconvenient, it would be nice to 'reward good behavior' by choosing to fly on carriers that are not afraid to sell through agencies.
JCMerlyn from AOL-land writes : I believe you are right about the reasons the airlines want travel agencies out of their way. It is not about distribution cost but about disinforming the customer.
Also it is about monopolizing the market place and forcing smaller airlines to merge with them to survive. The agent is the key and the hope to customer service and smaller airlines trying to compete. That is the big story behind all of this. If the big airlines control the distribution system then they will make the new rules.
David replies : Yes, that is an extremely good point. Until recently, travel agencies sold as much as 90% of all airline tickets in the US (it is now down to about 70% and steadily dropping). Any new airline could immediately become distributed through the travel agency network and get instant and equal, fair, access to 90% of all potential travelers.
If travel agents become less and less the main distribution system for airline tickets, then it gets harder and harder for new startup airlines to market their product. It is more than just a coincidence that the airlines that are doing all they can to support travel agencies are the smaller carriers, that are desperate to preserve this key 'equal access' opportunity for them and their (generally better and cheaper) services.
John from Uniglobe Vineyard Travel in Escondido, CA, writes : Your list of services was admittedly limited to air related services. May I give another example that potentially could apply to both air and other travel bookings.
As you well know, both Renaissance Cruises and Delta Queen (including American Hawaii and Patriot Cruises) filed for bankruptcy. For my agency, it meant about $175,000 loss in sales and about $17,000 in commissions. Due to our efforts, our clients, with only one exception, lost nothing! (The client who lost his fully paid cruise on Delta Queen refused to pay with a credit card, nor would he buy insurance.)
The story does not stop there. We contacted the insurance company and got them to agree to extend the coverage on the Renaissance cruises to a future trip, within one year of the original date of the sailing. So our clients did not even lose their insurance dollars. One of the provisions of the extensions was that they had to book by the date of the original travel date or notify the insurance company of their intended date of travel.
Today I sent our reminders to all of those who have not yet booked that they must do so shortly or at least contact us with an estimated date of travel to protect their coverage so we can advise the insurance company. Can you imagine an internet company doing this or even having the capability of doing this? I can't.
Travel Agent Rhona in Montreal writes : I think your column is fabulous and true and to the point, except at the end "Different Types of Travel Agents". There are a lot of agents that specialize in only certain types of travel, agreed, but we, at my agency, are "perfect" travel consultants in ALL categories! So there really are some perfect agents out there.
David replies :As a travel agent for ten years myself, I'm really hesitant to believe that a single agent can specialize in all categories. For example, let me ask these questions of you, all of which I've been asked myself (and not all of which I could successfully answer!) :
My point is simply this : Increasingly, the only thing that travel agents can sell to distinguish themselves from ever more helpful and interactive websites is personal experience and personal first hand knowledge. And, in order to get that experience, you have to visit the places you're selling. And there is the catch - if you're to be an expert on everything - all 200+ countries in the world - you'll be spending the entire year on fams and will have no time left to be in the agency and selling!
Tambra from Tambra's Travel in Minnetonka, MN, writes : Currently, most of the general public does not understand why they must pay a 'professional fee' if they book with a travel agent, however, if they book their travel via the internet they are still paying a 'fee' by spending at least two hours searching when all they have to do is call an agent and get ALL of their options in 10 mins.
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Copyright 2002 by David M Rowell.