As a veteran of a changing travel industry since I graduated from college over a quarter century ago, I have seen and heard more than one prediction of the extinction of travel agents. A recent Wall Street Journal listed the profession as one that is basically extinct, asking “When did you last talk to a travel agent?”
But in fact, one of the biggest topics of conversation amongst many agents and agencies I know is less the lack of business, than the difficulty in hiring enough good people.
Here are a couple cold hard facts. Jetblue and Virgin America, two of the biggest and most successful start-up airlines, are moving towards improving relations with travel agents.
Both carriers originally were basically phone and internet only, with a very limited presence in agents’ GDS reservation systems. Travel agents could book and ticket both airlines, but only through a complicated method of sending a credit card and refunds and changes were a pain to put it mildly.
As of last week, Virgin America changed to a standard electronic ticketing format, following Jetblue’s move last year. This format is more expensive for the airlines, but a lot easier for agents.
Neither carrier is exactly in the charity business. So they must think there is some value to increasing agency sales.
Like most domestic airlines, neither Jetblue nor Virgin America regularly pay commission. Virgin America does have some consortium deals for slight discounts, and both have now moved to paying commission through some tour operators.
There’s no way of knowing exactly what the tipping point was. Did the airlines think they would increase sales by working more with travel agents? Or, did they just figure that the more passengers who booked through travel agents, the more passengers would be dealing with those agents to make changes and to ask for information? (Meaning shorter lines at the airport, or shorter hold times on their own phone lines.)
In any case, their decisions mean more choices for consumers. And a vote of confidence for the travel agency community.