Delta mulling if group bookings change will be permanent

Delta has not yet decided whether to
make permanent a policy it began in early June that put an end to group
bookings except when those bookings are made by select travel agencies or tour
operators that have been assigned a dedicated Delta sales representative.

Throughout the summer, all other travel agencies have only
been able to book parties of nine or fewer travelers, with the bookings managed
through Delta.com in the same way that individual bookings are
managed.

In an emailed statement, Delta called the new policy a test
and said the move has freed up reservation specialists to assist with increased
summer call volumes. 

The company is still assessing the change and has not
decided if it will be made permanent, Delta spokeswoman Susannah Thurston wrote
in an email.

Under the domestic group booking program traditionally
offered by Delta and the other major U.S. carriers, travel agencies and tour
operators are able to hold seats on a flight up to 11 months in advance with a
small deposit. 

Such flexibility is key for those planning excursions such
as church missions or school trips, in which the precise number of travelers
and the names of travelers often are not determined at the time the trip is
scheduled. 

Airlines typically allow agencies and tour operators to hold
group booking seats until 90 days before a flight, at which time they are asked
to specify the number of travelers. After that, groups can typically lower the
traveler count by up to 10% without penalty until full payment is required.
Individuals can typically be substituted on and off the flight up to 48 or 72
hours before departure, said Kenny Totten, head of sales for group booking
specialist Air Travel Group.

Totten said the new policy came as a “shock” for
Air Travel Group, which does approximately $20 million in annual air bookings,
when it learned in June that Delta had eliminated domestic group sales for
unmanaged agencies. 

“We are kind of anxiously waiting to see if any of the
other carriers are going to follow suit, because it is a copycat industry,”
Totten said. 

For Air Travel Group, which has a dedicated Delta sales
representative and therefore has been able to continue making group bookings,
the change has been a net positive, Totten said. The reason is that smaller
operators, which can no longer do Delta domestic group bookings, have been
coming to them.

“We’ve had a 25% increase in Delta requests and new
accounts,” Totten said. “How many of those trips will actually fly is
still to be seen.”

One agent who has lost out from the test policy is home-based
operator Rob Kalpak of the Atlanta suburb Stone Mountain, Ga. Kalpak learned of the change this summer when he attempted
to book an early March mission trip for up to 50 people to Sacramento. Instead,
Delta referred him to its regular online booking process.

“It really just caught me by surprise,” Kalpak
said. “My thought is that they don’t want to tie up their inventory —
their seats — with speculative groups.”

Kalpak instead went to Southwest, which is holding seats for
the mission under its group bookings procedure. 

Kalpak’s frustrations notwithstanding, ASTA senior vice
president of industry affairs Mark Meader said the Society hasn’t heard any
pushback from travel advisers about the Delta change. 

“I have heard talk of group fares not being something
overly attractive to travelers given today’s published fares, but I don’t know
if that is completely true,” Meader wrote in an email. “Today, an
adviser can book a party of nine in one PNR/booking for one published fare that
is ideally available without issue. It’s when the adviser goes to book a second
party of nine (or any other number less than that) and that published fare is
no longer available that this becomes problematic for a group of 10 or more.”

In her statement, Delta’s Thurston stressed the ease of
access that customers, agents and tour operators have when they manage a
booking online rather than through a Delta group bookings agent.

“Before, all changes were managed through reservations,
whereas this test gives customers flexibility to manage their own groups,”
Thurston said.

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