Disruptions caused by attacks may steer customers back to using agents’ services
For the past several years, major airlines have been attempting to shift ticket sales to the Internet to eliminate the need for travel agents, but the confusion in air travel ensuing from last week’s terrorist attacks has once again put travel agents in demand.
“Airlines were telling people to call their travel agents,” said travel agent Janine Stagg of Ocean View Travel on Delaware Street. “We did whatever we could to help.”
Ocean View and other Berkeley agencies were inundated by the flood of travelers’ problems and invested the majority of their manpower in refunding and rescheduling.
“People could not get through to the airlines last week; they were stranded all over the world,” said Stagg. “We were here every day to see if we could get them out.”
One morning last week, David Shepherd, manager at Northside Travel on Euclid Avenue, was busy at his desk canceling a Eurail Pass, one of many recent cancellations handled by his office.
“Last week was primarily a scramble to assist distressed passengers,” Shepherd said, referring to customers caught in the middle of trips or about the take one.
Most cancellations have been made by travelers unable to make it to planned meetings or conferences because their flight had been canceled or postponed.
Some, however, were due to fear.
“There’s a lot of shock and confusion right now,” said Shepherd.
For customers who needed to postpone their trips, Shepherd and his agents created alternative travel plans. A when these fell through, they created more alternatives, a situation Shepherd described as “a lot of churn.”
Northside, like most of the other travel agencies, has not been charging for these travel changes.
“This rescheduling has made us very busy with work that had already been completed,” said Cheryl Bickley, agent and part-owner of Great Escapes travel agency on The Alameda. “Here we’ve had a few cancellations but most people going on their trips are still going to go.”
In addition to being buried with unbillable work, business at these travel agencies has taken a hit as a result of the number of canceled travel plans.
“We refunded more tickets last week than we sold,” said Shepherd. “That’s a first in this office.”
Shepherd, however, was confident that the volume of air travel will return to normal within a few months, and added that sales have already increased in the current week. “We are doing new bookings, people are gong forth with their travel plans,” he said.
“Rather than selling we have been giving back money,” said Stagg. “Business has been significantly slower, but this week we have seen the business travelers come back. … We’re hoping for the best.”
She expressed concern about how the downturn in the airline industry will affect small travel agencies like Ocean View, which have already been hit hard by the airlines’ recent commission cuts.
Travelers who bought their tickets on the Internet are finding themselves caught in a bind, said Shepherd.
“Every day we’ve had numerous people call and come by who bought their tickets on the Internet,” he said.
Agents can only offer advice to these people, as they have no capability to change tickets booked on the Internet.
Most travelers who purchase tickets on the Web do so for reasons of convenience or to avoid commission fees. In addition to the commission, Northside charges an extra $20 for every ticket booked, but Shepherd believes that that is a small price to pay for the security offered by a travel agency.
“Our customers really got something for their money,” he said.
Stagg said that while travelers may feel like they are saving money by purchasing tickets on the Internet, many are beginning to realize that it is not worth the potential problems.
“People are coming back to travel agents,” she said.
Travel agencies expressed hope that airlines will reconsider their attempts to eliminate the need for travel agents in light of recent events. Bickley believes transferring all ticket sale transactions to the Internet would be a mistake.
“This past week’s crisis has shown that you cannot have an information system that does not include a human being to give information,” she said.