Airlines have never been fond of paying commissions to travel agents, so they stopped. Now, airlines are actively poaching travel agent clients.
When airlines rolled out their first online booking sites, some predicted it would be the end of travel agents. There certainly are fewer agents than there used to be. And some agents refuse to book airline tickets. Increasingly, however, at our office and elsewhere, not only are we finding that some clients never stopped booking tickets, but others are coming back.
Online sites do offer more and more bells and whistles, but they can be confusing. And, if anything goes wrong, options may be limited, and it’s hard to find a human to help. Not to mention that after the fact, it’s difficult to keep track of unused tickets and copies of receipts incur an airline service fee.
Nonetheless, inducements to book online are nothing new. In the standard 10 percent commission days, some airlines offered 5 percent to book direct. Now, with no standard agent commissions, airlines love to tout “no booking fees” and “guaranteed lowest fares” for their websites. And some airline-branded credit cards give bonus miles for online bookings. Fair enough.
Direct poaching to my mind is another level. This particular example is from United Airlines. I only know about it because I am both an elite-level frequent flier and a travel agent.
United has for a while now been sending emails urging clients to book cars and hotels direct with United.com for a trip. But the program has kinks — they recently sent me an email urging me to book a hotel with them for a day trip to Los Angeles (and no by-the-hour places were referenced).
Now, they’ve started sending the occasional email referencing some past trip, most recently London, and suggesting, “Next time book your travel on United.com,” touting the advantages of their site.
In these cases, they know the trip was booked through a travel agent. They just don’t realize I’m the travel agent.
Of course, while they’re doing this, United, along with other major carriers, will still have “preferred” relationships and contracts with some large agencies, including ours, where they hope we will “move market share” to them. (“Move market share” translates to talk clients into booking their airline over competitors.)
Since most other carriers are probably doing the same thing, or will be soon, perhaps United figures that travel agents won’t really mind if they try to lure our clients away. Or, they figure even if we do mind, what choice do we have?
And airlines wonder why travel agents try to game the system.