Posted by: Five Star Travel & Cruises | February 10, 2011

In a Crisis, Travel Agents Can Still Have an Edge

So in searching for something to blog about today i was lucky enough to have someone sent me an email that had an interesting story attached. its an article from the New York Times about how travel agents have an edge when problems arise instead of handling it on your own and getting no where.

SO just about everybody is back home or at least moving smoothly on the road. The air travel system seems to have returned to what we now regard as normal after all the snow-related disruptions last week. But what have we learned from the mess that radiated outward from snowbound New York airports over the Christmas holiday, when about 10,000 flights were canceled over five days and the airlines were unable to rebook travelers because their planes were already mostly full? I like the assessment of one reader, John Reilly, who weighed the facts and concluded, “Something is wrong here.”

One of the biggest shocks, even for frequent travelers, was the breakdown last week in airline customer service. Stranded passengers spent hours on phones trying to rebook canceled flights. Few were successful. Many spent a long night or two learning that airport seats were not designed for sleep. One big reason for the breakdown is that airlines have far fewer employees than they once had. And that means they get overwhelmed by sudden surges in demand. In October 2000, for example, the major domestic airlines employed 680,767 workers, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at the Transportation Department. In October 2010, they had 516,581 — even as the number of annual passengers grew to 701.5 million in 2009, from 665.5 million in 2000.

Continental Airlines, for one example, cut nearly a quarter of its 2,600 reservations call-center jobs last April, explaining that calls to live agents were off by 15 percent as more customers routinely booked their flights on the Internet.But as tens of thousands of travelers found out last week, airline Web sites, which are quite good at taking a reservation, are not so good — in a crisis — at keeping it. As Jerry Seinfeld said in a classic episode on reservations gone awry: “You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.”

So with online and phone options severely limited, where can you turn?

Let me suggest an option that may not immediately come to mind: a travel agent. Now, like many entrepreneurs, I pride myself on booking all of my own travel and handling all the problems myself. In fact, Jimmy Carter was the president the last time I recall using a  travel agent. But I am fairly certain that if I had been traveling during that mess last week, I would have spent at least one day stuck at an airport, grumbling darkly as I listened to those annoying terminal announcements not to accept suitcases from strangers or to make “jokes or inappropriate comments” about security.

So I was interested to hear from Robert Robar, the owner of Travel Centre of Gainesville, a Florida agency. “We rebooked and found alternative flights for customers before many had even left for the airport” last week, he reported. In fact, Mr. Robar seemed almost apologetic about not having any first-hand travel horror stories to share. “Of course, I have heard tales,” he said.

In 2002, with Internet bookings proliferating, airlines eliminated the commissions they used to pay to travel agents for booking tickets. As a result, many one-size-fits-all storefront agencies closed down. But smart agents built new business models around loyal clients who pay fees for personal service. The average fee now charged by agents for booking an airline ticket is about $37.50, says the American Society of Travel Agents. “I get calls at 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Mr. Robar, who worked for the old Eastern Airlines for 25 years before becoming an agent. Back then, he said, airlines had enough ticket agents and gave them the authority to solve a customer’s problems on the spot, “even something as basic as simply reissuing a ticket,” he said.

Mark Dennen, a business traveler who has used an agent for 25 years, wrote to me to strongly recommend finding one. “When I call my travel agent, Maureen Doyle, she always answers the phone,” he said in a phone interview. “I have yet to sleep in an airport.”

Mr. Dennen, who travels frequently to Asia on business, said that having an on-call agent meant being able to switch gears on the road when circumstances demanded it. “You can’t stand around waiting for things to happen,” he said. Last week, incidentally, some airlines scored customer service points by having a small number of employees handle online passenger entreaties on Twitter. Delta Air Lines, for example, had nine  employees on a special Twitter squad called “Team Assist” — but, by my reading, this was mostly an exercise in information sharing and hand-holding, not in reservation-holding.

“I am very sorry for your ordeal,” a Team Assist member told one frustrated traveler two days after Christmas.

By Joe Sharkey NY Times

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