Why airlines need travel agents

by Janice Hough on May 21, 2013

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It’s no secret that airlines want travelers to buy tickets on their websites whenever possible. It saves the carriers money in booking fees and keeps passengers from comparison shopping to discover better fares on competing airlines.

However, as much as airlines seem to loath travel agents, U.S. travel agents sold $84.5 billion in airline tickets last year. Besides the billions in income, airlines benefit from travel agents when things go wrong during travels. Airlines have been cutting staff, which means less customer service. So having travel agents dealing with many customer service and flight rerouting problems is a bonus for the airlines.

These days, even casual travelers are likely to notice there just aren’t that many staffers at the airport. One or two agents may now monitor several kiosks. In smaller airports or airports where a carrier doesn’t have many flights, one of those agents often goes to the gate to help with boarding.

When it comes to telephone service, while elite level frequent fliers may have numbers to get through to a reservations agent quickly, occasional travelers generally endure long waits and are more likely to reach call centers operated outside of the United States.

None of this matters that much to airlines on a day that planes are on time. But, when there’s a problem, having the help of travel agents to take the pressure off their undermanned systems is vital.

Several times this week I’ve had clients with canceled flights, delayed flights and/or potential missed-connections. Because it is not a holiday week solutions were not rocket science. It was not even that difficult to find alternatives.

However, today, my client had a flight canceled out of Little Rock on United Airlines and there were no more United flights out of that airport until tomorrow. To top it off, there just weren’t enough United staffers at the airport to rebook passengers. (Note: Automatic rebooking programs don’t look at other carriers.)

Moreover, my client couldn’t get through to United on the phone, so she emailed me while standing in line. It turned out to be easy for me to rebook her on American Airlines so that when she got to the agent and gave him the information, all the agent had to do was exchange the ticket.

The agent also said he was quite pleased that she was already rebooked so he didn’t have to search for alternatives. Plus, no doubt, people behind my client in line were pleased that it was a quick transaction.

As an aside, this traveler never received an automatic rebooking option. Had American not been available or had someone not found the flights, the only option was an overnight stay. In that case, gate agents at the very least would have had to deal with hotel options and vouchers.

I have no idea how many others with canceled flights also contacted either their own agent, an after-hours service or an online-agency help line. But, my sense is that it was a significant number.

Another client reported when her flight was canceled one of the overwhelmed gate agents announced, “Those of you with travel agents, I suggest you call them.”

Automatic rebooking programs will probably get better with time, but the new internal airline reservations systems make it harder and harder to find alternate airline flights.

(Plus, so far, no client or airline has indicated that the programs get at all creative with nearby airports, for example JFK-La Guardia-Newark, San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland, not to mention airports 50 to 100 miles away, which often work in a pinch.)

As the airlines continue to automate and push direct bookings, my sense is that their practical reliance on travel agents will if anything increase, even if they don’t admit it.

And while travel agents may or may not charge their clients for emergency help, the cost to the airlines for travel agent fixing their messes — zero.

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  • DCTA

    that’s your sense and my sense Janice, but the “bean counters” at the airlines don’t get it……yet.

  • TonyA_says

    How much of that $84.5 billion is by Online Travel Agents (OTAs).
    They are travel agencies, too, aren’t they?

  • TonyA_says

    How much are these people paying for YOUR concierge service?
    I believe that is part of the cost equation (that airlines don’t want to pay for).

  • DCTA

    TonyA, I know you know that it’s both the travelers and the agents! ;-)

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