I own my own travel consulting business (yes I sell airline tickets and other services) and I have read a great many of the comments on this thread.
There are some very well stated comments and there are some that, shall we say, are somewhat lacking in forethought. Having been in the industry some 26 years now (17 as a travel agent and 9 as an airline manager), I think I have a little perspective to add to this discussion.
First, everybody needs to get a reality check. The internet has fundamentally changed the way travel is sold, period. From a vendor perspective and especially for the airlines, it has become an excellent vehicle for improving efficiencies in the selling of air transportation, and it has become, perhaps the third largest cost saving for airlines, behind labor and fuel. I absolutely do not begrudge the airlines at all for doing what is best for their business. Change is good. It is also good for the travel agents.
The position that the older (and frankly smaller) travel agencies have taken is that the carriers, particularly in the US have robbed them of their livelihood. That is absolutely not the case. The airlines have, over a course of several years, reduced commissions to travel agencies as the economics of internet sales became such that there was no need for travel agencies to be paid a base commission for their sales. The theory was that the average travel agent did not direct the sale, they just booked what was convenient for the customer. There was no preferential selling of the airline product going on. What should an airline pay a travel agent for being an order taker? Short answer is...they should not have to.
Those forward thinking agency companies changed their business models and began to charge their customer a fee for their service. Hence, when the basic commission structure went away, those companies already had a different revenue stream to rely upon and did not take a hit. Those companies that did not either understand the reality or refused to believe it were suddenly out of business. My friends, that is free enterprise.
Contrary to what some of you have said, there is a market for the travel agent. Actually, let me restate that: There is a market for the travel CONSULTANT. There are a number of reasons for this, but the fundamental one is that not everyone likes to, or wants to book their travel over the internet. This is especially so in the international marketplace. There is also a need for SERVICE. I do not mean order taking, but providing advice, counsel, research analysis and presenting options for the end user, then procuring the arrangements and providing them to the customer at the least possible cost and the greatest possible value.
There are a number of you who have stated that you don't need a travel agent. That's perfectly OK
. However, when you get stuck in an airport because of a weather delay and the airline has left you stranded in the middle of the night with no viable way to continue your journey and no responsibility for doing anything other than rebooking you on another flight, who are you going to call? Unless you are VERY knowledgeable about the workings of an airline, both in reservations and at the airport, not many of you would know exactly what to do to arrange a reissue of a FIM because the CSR agent who booked them who had been getting pummeled for an hour before dealing with the client sent them to the wrong place. That is where I come in (or rather where the experts come in).
The vast majority of people do not know how to handle themselves in an airport and because they do not know, they get scared, they get frustrated and guess who are the people who get beat up? Its the poor customer service agent who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then the service is bad because the agent is tired and beat up mistreats the passenger and round and round it goes....
We provide service. We give reassurance that when there is a problem, we can either get it fixed or provide some alternate arrangement so that people's vacations are not ruined, or someone's multi-million dollar deal doesn't blow up because they can't get out of someplace.
What I have described to you is just a small piece of what the "elite" travel consultants do. Guess what? I charge for that service, and believe me, people pay it without hesitation.
I can name hundreds of clients who I have helped to have a great honeymoon, a great vacation, a successful business trip, visiting friends and relatives and, in some very sad cases; rushing a client to Europe to see his dying father, helping parents whose child had died get back home to be with their family. For those of you that say we do not have value to people are missing the entire point (and I am being very polite and restrained when I say this).
The travel industry has changed, is changing and is going to continue changing. Those that do not stay ahead of the changes in the industry are going to be out of business. This is as true for certain legacy carriers that I know of (and used to work for), because they refused to deal with the radical shift that low cost carriers brought to the industry at the same time as the collapse of an economy and a terrorist action unprecedented in its scope.
The good news is that, for as many travel agents whose time has come to find another line of work, as many people are getting into the business. They bring a new mind set, one that is focused on providing the customer with tools to do research, engines to do bookings, and yes, consultants to provide counsel and fulfillment when a customer decides they are not comfortable doing it themselves.
My business is specifically positioned this way. In accordance with the rules of this forum, I am not giving my name, nor the name of my company. Shortly, I am relaunching my site which will have both a very robust booking engine for those who are interested in doing their own arrangements, a booking engine for special non-published airfares, and one for cruises and packages. I am also offering three different levels of service: One for the internet user, when they need help or support, another for most people who need some level of counsel and assistance in procurement and a top level for those people who want someone else to take care of the arrangements for them. Each one has its own fee structure and deposit requirements. Since I ask for a deposit, I also guarantee my work.
Oh and guess what? I am my own business. My brand has been spreading over the internet for the past two years, my advertising is taking a new direction this year and with the leading edge web technology and booking engines, I can either sit back and let the dollars come in from the people who wish to get a "deal" on their travel, or I can work with the people who really need and appreciate the help. Either way, I make money. I have specific specialties, notably international air, since I have vast experience in airline sales, pricing and tariffs, so I am able to work a little magic with ticketing. There is room both for the large corporate agencies as well as the small entrepreneurs like myself who are creative enough to take the opportunity that the airlines have given us and turn it into something really profitable. I do this myself from my home, so I can work and take care of myself at the same time. The technology allows me the liberty to do that.
We are all here to help one another. Every one of us are knowledgeable people who love the airline business. I wish I could be back there. However, I got hurt and can't for the foreseeable future, regain employment with an airline. For that I am more sad than you can possibly know. However, I do not dwell on my problems, I focus on my solutions. I worked for United and lost my ESOP money (all $40K of it). I am losing my United pension now. So I have to revisit my retirement savings investments. Do you see me whining about that in my posts? NO! Am I going to blame United for not having the foresight or wisdom to see the problem BEFORE it happened? NO! Why, because it makes no difference, the money is gone and sitting around blaming people for it is not going to help me replace it! I built up a franchise for a major European airline and brought service to a city that had NEVER seen business from that airline direct. We were successful on the west coast, until 9/11. After that, we had to pull down everything. I had to let go of my staff and myself. Do you hear me whining? NO! WHY? Those events were beyond my control. I could not change them myself, nor could I changed the injuries I suffered which forced me out at the same time I closed our office.
So I went into business on my own. I have taken and built my business from nothing and, yes, it is small, but it is mine and it is growing. Just like those of you who are working for airlines who are figuring out how to survive and prosper, travel agents are doing the same thing.
On and by the way, I am still paid commissions by airlines. I receive compensation for directionally selling business onto a few key airlines. For that, I receive compensation from the airlines as well as my clients. Travel agents still account for over half the airline sales in this country and for the moment, airlines feel there is value in supporting those that support them the most. THIS IS
THE WAY IT
I cannot possibly state this point stronger: PLEASE, PLEASE before you put fingers to the keyboard, THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE SAYING. I bear no ill will toward anyone in this forum, and I truly trust that those that read my posts have some respect for my knowledge, notwithstanding my lack of brevity.
So I close by saying this. Cast not the first stone, for what goes around, comes around. If you do good by people, it will come back to you in success and happiness. If you do ill, well, lets just say the rock you threw, will come back your way...and ducking it won't help you.
Let's all work together for the betterment of our airlines and our industry. PLEASE!
David L. Lamb, fmr Area Mgr Alitalia SFO 1998-2002, fmr Regional Analyst SFO-UAL 1992-1998