Here's what advisors think about selling air now

Robert Silk

Booking air.

For many travel agencies and advisors it has long been a dilemma, something they feel they should do, even though it can be unrewarding, financially and otherwise. 

Many agents have decided to jettison air bookings entirely. 

But for those agencies that do book air, the landscape has grown more complicated in recent months, at least if their preferred booking venue is a GDS. 

A survey Travel Weekly conducted in late May sought travel advisors’ opinions on this state of affairs. Unfortunately, it yielded few surprises. Most travel advisors don’t like selling air and are especially displeased about the current state of play.

Still, there is some good news. 

Airline commissions aren’t necessarily flourishing. But they’re not dead, either. Among the 424 survey participants who answered our question about that subject, 33% said their agency has a contract for commissions. Among those “yes” respondents, Delta led the way, having commission contracts with 70% of them. United was next at 62%. 

Not every comment about selling air was negative. 

“Air is a great lead-in to building a customer relationship. It definitely positions us as the ‘travel experts,’ even if the profit margins aren’t as large as other segments,” wrote one respondent.

Nevertheless, the major takeaway from the survey was that travel advisors are frustrated. And increasingly so.

Among 552 self-selected survey participants, 77.5% said they sell airfare. But many of those agents made it clear they’ll only book airline tickets as part of a package or overall trip. 

More than 80% of the those surveyed who don’t book air listed lack of compensation and not wanting to be held responsible for poor airline operations among their reasons for not doing so. I was struck by the fact that 57.5% cited lack of supplier support.

Even among those who do book air, a handful of commenters said they are thinking of giving it up.

American, of course, has been a special source of irritation for travel advisors lately due to its pulling of approximately 40% of content from legacy GDSs in April. The carrier also slashed its agency-facing sales staff this spring and instituted a round of commission contract cancellations.

Some respondents singled out American for derision, though not as many as I’d expected. 

“Given a choice, I would book practically anyone before American,” one travel advisor said.

I can’t get inside that individual’s head. But what I do know is that people, travel advisors included, like being appreciated and supported for their efforts. And that makes me think of a remark Kathy Campbell, who heads up leisure air bookings for Frosch Travel, made to me in April while we were participating in the Air Canada-United Airlines Race in Evora, Portugal. 

United joined Air Canada as a partner in the annual event this year, which rewards select agents with an educational and fun trip to a destination that is accessible via the airlines’ network. By happenstance, the event occurred amid the upheaval being caused by American’s turn away from agencies. 

Campbell’s week in Portugal reinforced her sense that United still thinks of her, and travel advisors generally, as partners.

“They are much more encouraging. They are more willing to work with you if something goes wrong. If there’s a problem, if there’s a mistake, they are there to help you,” she said.

No doubt, many travel advisors are hoping that eventually they’ll again be able to feel that American is there to help them. 

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