Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Agent and the Airline

Probably the oldest fight in the travel industry is the love/hate relationship between vendor and supplier, or the airlines and the travel agencies in particular. How much commission is the service of a travel agent worth is at the core of one of the longest running disputes in business. It has flared up again in a big way between American Airlines and three travel management companies, Orbitz, Expedia and Sabre. Why?

I honestly don't care about the reasons or particulars. The gist is whether or not American is trying to either save money or create an unfair advantage through its Direct Connect reservations link which cuts out the online agencies and therefore cuts them out of their commissions. Well, here's my dirty little secret:


The agencies deserve compensation for their services this is true but guess what? If the fare is the same on the airline's website as it is on the agency website, I'll buy it directly from the airline. This double take is exactly what is also at the core of the argument. The agencies state this extra step of going directly to the airline website is laborious and not inclusive of the fares offered on the other airlines. Both arguments are true again: it is an extra step and no domestic airline is going to display a competitor's products and prices. Hidden behind this, however, is also the fact that going directly to the airline skips or "by-passes" the agencies who therefore do not collect commissions on tickets booked directly with the carrier.

None of these arguments are the reason I go directly to the airlines. Let's say I'm shopping for fares between home in Dallas and friends in Chicago, a route American serves like no other. I'll take a look at one of the online agencies to see the spread of air fares across all carriers between the two cities. United and American are the only nonstops but Delta and Air Tran might offer a better price if I fly through Atlanta or Memphis. I live near DFW and my friends are near O'Hare so that cuts Southwest out right from the start - they don't serve either airport. Whichever airline offers the best deal after factoring in schedule, convenience and price, I'll go directly to their website and see if the same fare is available directly with them.

The agencies don't want this extra step which takes me all of a few extra minutes to perform. Commissions or no, what it is more important to me is the service level I will get at the airport, plain and simple. Again, why? If the airline is paid directly and then there is an unforeseen travel disruption that changes my itinerary I will receive immediate service from the airline. Too often I have seen instances of travelers with tickets in hand being refused service by the carriers after a disruption of some kind because they didn't write the ticket therefore they don't have the money so they don't have to serve you.

Imagine standing at the airport, boarding pass in hand and being told there is no seat and nothing they can do! The customer is forced to contact their travel agent for alternate arrangements sometimes during the worst of circumstances - the very day of travel! God help you if your travel agent is closed. Even better, try standing in line at Customer Service only to be told to contact your travel agency. Most have hotlines and most are open 24/7 but still.... THEY don't want you to book direct but YOU shouldn't have to go back to them to solve a problem when you're already at the airport face to face with the airline!

Airlines will say this does not happen often and this is true, it does not. The vast majority of agency issued tickets go through with no problems at all even if problems arise in the middle of travel. It DOES happen, however, and typically after there has been a schedule change that forces a rebooking or some other operational change that is "unfortunate or unavoidable" but still leaves the ticket holder high and dry, sometimes far away from home. Since the airline has not receive payment from the agency they are not obligated to provide alternatives. The snottier of the airport staff are quick to point this out as well, saying something like "if you had bought directly with us we'd be able to help you."

Lesson learned and point taken. It's never happened to me and I've always bought directly from the airlines for exactly that reason. They DO have my money and they'd BETTER take care of me.

Gotta go.

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