There’s no reason for many people to use a travel agent for a simple roundtrip airline ticket, and very few travel agencies are interested in making those bookings. Brick and mortar agencies saw their commissions cut, and began instituting fees or such bookings. They were mostly put out of business by the online travel agencies like Expedia and Orbitz. Now, travel agencies mostly exist for specialized services such as managed business travel and high end trips.
Something was lost in the process. Some customers do need handholding, the kind they used to get from travel agents of varying quality.
- What connection is best?
- Is there enough connecting time?
- What seat should I choose?
And of course there’s a lot going on in an airline price. What are the fare rules? What’s included? How much do checked bags cost? What about internet? You can generally find information on an airline’s website (most of the online travel agency sites are less good here). But it can be work.
The Department of Transportation announced a notice of proposed rulemaking last year, and took comment, on their idea that every commercial site offering airline schedules display uniform information. They had a list of fees in mind that had to be shown with every trip. Sites would have to warn when not every airline was going to be displayed (free advertising for Southwest.com).
Air travel can be complicating, daunting, confusing. But I filed a comment with the DOT suggesting that they were taking the wrong approach.
When airfare went online, travel became a truly mass experience. The next wave of online travel is customization – figuring out the relevant fees, amenities, and making recommendations to travelers rather than just displaying prices and schedules. That’s a process that should be allowed to continue, not smothered at birth by a one size fits all approach mandated by DOT.
Four years ago there was a mini-scandal when it was revealed that Orbitz displayed more expensive hotel recommendations to users of Macs than PCs. Their research showed that Mac users tended to choose pricier accommodations, and the goal was to give people want they wanted on the first search so they didn’t go somewhere else never to return to Orbitz. It was clumsy and not very personalized, but the idea is to tailor search results to what a site knows about a consumer to make the process easier.
DOT doesn’t necessarily pick the right fees or services for everyone that will be relevant every trip into the future, and it’s better to allow customization of information. And it’s better to allow customized sorting of information based on what a new site believes will be best for travelers – based on a “pain index” or recommended connections in the winter, or what have you. Prohibiting ‘undisclosed bias’ gets in the way of improving travel.
People hate airlines so it’s great fodder to beat up on them. And transparency is always popular. But it doesn’t make sense to say that customers don’t know checked bags have fees – it’s precisely that they do know which is why checked bag fees are so unpopular.
Fees are pretty well disclosed now, as they’re required to be. Taking it a step further, to require specific fees be shown on every single website that displays schedules and fares – at the start of every search process – is going to be cumbersome. We want nimble. Travel searches should get better, not frozen in time by regulatory requirements.
And though it’s not popular to say, we don’t actually all want more information. Priceline and Hotwire offer us discounts precisely by giving us less information in advance about our travels.
It turns out the future I was describing a year ago in my DOT comment started today.
Kayak – one of the leading travel search websites, and the most popular ‘metasearch’ sites which shows you options pulled from a variety of data sources in one place, it’s the place I suggest that travel neophytes go for their searches – has signed an agreement with RouteHappy to integrate thepr ‘Scores & Amenities data’ into airfare search results.
That’s a huge leap forward in present consumers with more than just schedules and price on a mainstream travel search site… about putting product differentiation forward.
Routehappy Scores & Amenities includes comprehensive data on seven factors — Aircraft, Seat, Layout, Wi-Fi, Entertainment, Power, and Fresh Food — on nearly every flight and cabin worldwide. Routehappy researches and verifies flight amenities by aircraft, cabin, schedule, and route on a constant basis from hundreds of sources to create Flightpad, the most comprehensive, accurate comparable product dataset for flights worldwide. Flightmatch dynamically matches and scores aircraft, seat, amenities, and duration for billions of possible flight combinations.
Will you choose an airline based on wifi, seat power, or inflight entertainment? Maybe. Certainly if price is the same, maybe if it’s close. I’ll rule out an airline based on lack of inflight internet, at least if it’s not Cathay Pacific First Class. There are lots of tradeoffs, and this is useful information.
This isn’t the same thing as easy access to baggage fees and change fees, though it’s not hard to learn about those things (and consumers are generally aware of checked baggage fees — which is why those fees are so unpopular).
I still think it’s Google that will be your next travel agent, integrating data about your trips (from Gmail) to airline and hotel options (via search) and even local content.
I don’t love the Expedia experience and am not personally a fan of Expedia’s Orbitz acquisition (or of Expedia’s frequent devaluations of their rewards program). But I don’t think it matters because of Google and Priceline’s Kayak and Booking.com.
We still need customized advice about which connection to take, and easier ways to understand total trip pricing for a given consumers needs rather than one size fits all (which would otherwise be more confusing than illuminating). But it’s a step in the right direction.
As a former travel agent, I can assure you that OTA’s were not the primary reason for the demise of brick and mortar travel agencies. The reason was that the airlines instituted commission caps (all at about the same time, no collusion there), which meant that suddenly even if you had clients spending large sums of money on airline tickets, you still only got an exceedingly small commission. Obviously, such an idea would fly like a stone kite in other industries such as real estate, but worked very effectively against the travel agencies. As a result, non OTA’s had to charge additionally to book tickets, which was ill received by the flying public. Net effect was the removal of many travel agencies.
Echoing @Christian’s remarks — I owned a fairly large corporate travel agency with several Fortune 500 clients. When DL capped commissions at $50 max per ticket, my average ticket commission was close to $130. My average cost per ticket was close to $40.
Adios corporate travel agency!