Op Ed: Louise Miller On Travel Service Challenges Amid A Choppy Return

Deteriorated or insufficient travel services will be a reality for some as volumes recover. Demanding corporate travelers and their managers, generally satisfied with their service providers’ efforts during the pandemic, will start to lose patience. Areka Consulting’s Louise Miller suggests proactively and thoroughly communicating with travelers, understanding travel management company staffing and information sharing capabilities, and taking another look at policies.


As corporate travelers in some parts of the world return to the skies, airlines and other suppliers are struggling to keep up. Customers are experiencing sometimes staggering hold times with airlines. Unused tickets, fare rule changes and sometimes elusive travel restrictions can all stand in the way of successfully completing a booking online or via chat. What’s a traveler to do?

This issue is critical because every travel program relies on travelers having confidence that they will receive the services needed to fulfill business goals without inordinate pain, friction or risk. This has never been more true than it is today, when travel can be fraught with uncertainty around safety, diminished services and changing regulations. 

What’s actually happening?

There’s no question that volume is recovering. In some places it’s way up, with pent-up demand in both corporate and leisure travel segments. In parallel, suppliers are rebooting a workforce that, in most cases, they reduced drastically. In early May, some airlines announced the migration away from in-pandemic waivers to fares with new restrictions and benefits. Discussions since then with Areka Consulting’s advisory board of frequent travelers (for leisure and business) pointed to growing concern over increased hold times for airline customer service – right when it’s needed most.

These are some recent reports of traveler experiences:

  • One traveler’s mid-May call to a major U.S. carrier was met with a recorded message anticipating hold time of two hours and eight minutes. With no option to request a call-back, the traveler settled in for a long wait that actually was closer to two-and-a-half hours. That traveler needed to split a two-passenger booking to modify one passenger’s outbound segment — not an option on this airline’s website based on the circumstances. Once the traveler reached an agent, they acknowledged that, “Yes, our hold times have been very long lately.”
  • Last month, another traveler made an effort to rebook an unused ticket on a major U.S. carrier, purchased early in the pandemic. During the rebooking process, the carrier’s website offered an option to “make it changeable for $49.” When the traveler selected that option, they received repeated error messages, halting that self-service effort. After 55 minutes on hold for phone support, an agent informed the traveler that it wasn’t possible to exchange a ticket for a refundable fare.
  • A third traveler encountered an airline recording that requested those with non-urgent needs call back in 72 hours. That traveler, looking to get an unused ticket reissued, complied, only to find that in those three days, the fare rose from $408 to a whopping $698. And that still was more than three weeks in advance.
Louise Miller, Areka Consulting

Louise Miller, Areka Consulting managing partner

Travelers can also face a dizzying array of new, tricky fare stipulations. Those who choose to pay $99 to make their ticket “refundable” may be surprised when they get a voucher rather than credit when seeking a refund. 

As of early May, fares advertised with “no change fees” essentially required one to pay upfront for the right to change. If you don’t, the ticket is truly nonrefundable. The “right to change” for domestic U.S. travel can range from about $50 to over $200. Some airlines always had true nonrefundable fares — so this is not new — and business travelers are used to somewhat consistent rules across the Big Three U.S. carriers. New dynamic pricing has ended this consistency. There are nuances for each carrier’s new fare rules and in how they are displayed. The good news is that there is more differentiation than ever. Travelers can choose the options that work best for them.

In addition to our traveler advisory board, Areka Consulting interacts with more than 500 buyers a month. It’s notable that buyers have not reported much challenge with TMC response times. The airlines are dealing with leisure and unmanaged corporate, which we know is coming back first. Corporate travelers who expect consistent service may not be as patient. They also have the ear of the travel buyer and/or manager, neither of whom have an easy solution to long hold times.

Airlines clearly need to return to profitability and as they balance staffing issues, volatile demand and shifting regulations, it’s unlikely that standard and simple fare rules will be common any time soon. The effort to apply unused tickets is still messy at times. 

Corporate travel buyers and managers are starting to hear noise from business travelers. Today, this is a very U.S.-centric issue, as the Big Three U.S. carriers had consistent change fees for many years. Other markets, with a mix of national carrier dominance and low-cost challengers, have had a wider variety of rules.

Travel managers and buyers express concern that travelers facing these changes when traveling within the United States may blame the confusion on their company’s preferred airline, travel policy or travel management company. Areka statistics showed that satisfaction with both airlines and TMCs were at an all-time high before the pandemic; let’s hope suppliers can maintain or re-gain traveler confidence.  

In various markets around the world where domestic travel is returning, including Australia and China, travelers and buyers tell us about some longer-than-desired hold times with their TMCs.

What You Can Do

We can’t expect program loyalty or high online adoption rates if we can’t service the travelers through our corporate tools. What are the most important things to do right now?

  • Understand your TMC’s plan to staff up and what they are doing to give travelers on-demand access to information. What steps are they taking to mitigate spikes in call volume? How can they proactively communicate policies on new fare rules, ticket exchanges, etc.?
  • Email may provide some relief to busy phone lines if a trip is weeks away and the online booking tool cannot fully handle it. If the airline website can’t handle some scenarios, it’s likely the TMC has to touch records in those cases, too.
  • Make use of your OBT’s settings and banners to update your “just in time” communications. Configure display settings to reflect your citypairs and schedules. OBTs and TMCs are on light staffing right now, so changes can take time.
  • Proactively explain the new rules for airfares to travelers. Who doesn’t love a good Meet, Teams or Zoom update? The “shopper” culture has exploded during the pandemic, so show them in advance how to better help themselves.
  • Adjust and communicate your policy (really guidance, in most cases) about connected topics. Does the lowest fare in your policy include the lowest fare with a seat assignment? Is it different for flights under two hours? What about nonrefundable fares actually being nonrefundable? Is that in the policy?

Our traveler advisory group members applauded the airlines for the amazing tenacity with which they approached service through the most challenging parts of the pandemic. And we hear from buyers that the airlines and TMCs showed an extraordinary level of flexibility in sorting out unused tickets. But empathy is going to wane. Business travelers are back on the road.


Related
Corporate Travel Buyers On What They Need From TMCs, How They’re Working With Suppliers And Why Policies Changed (Video)
U.S. Capacity Is Returning, But Business Travel Isn’t A Priority In Fluid Airline Network Planning (Audio)
Op Ed: Louise Miller On TMC Innovation Coming Back Into View
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Louise Miller

Author: Louise Miller

Louise has more than 30 years experience in the travel industry including airline, car rental, buyer and travel management company roles. As an executive team member of a top three global TMC for over 20 years, she reported to the president and CEO. Louise consults on the entire travel value chain in her role as Areka Consulting managing partner for the Americas. Her areas of experience include P&L management, finance, pricing, marketing, sales, account management, operations, product portfolio management, IT infrastructure and innovation. Louise actively promotes innovation with customers, associations, suppliers and the media. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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