Some travel agents like to say their profession is like taking a flight with uninterrupted turbulence. But 2017 may go down as the wildest ride yet.
“This was an especially crazy year,” said Eben Peck, executive vice president, advocacy with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), during a press conference Tuesday.
Beginning in January, with a travel ban that caused airport protests and scared some travelers to stay off of planes and away from destinations where they feared they might be targeted, the year presented travel agents with a constant stream of political turmoil that often rocked the industry and kept their phones and email humming.
Confusion reigned and agents reported an initial dip in sales as the Jan. 27 executive order wound its way through district courts. The Trump administration would revise the order twice before this month, when the Supreme Court weighed in, approving the third version of the executive order.
Much confusion over Cuba
Politics also fueled confusion for travel to Cuba. In June, the Trump administration followed through on another campaign promise and announced it would tighten up travel restrictions to the island nation in order to pressure the Cuban government.
Agents, cruise lines and tour operators pondered what the final regulations would look like as travel bookings paused a little leading up to an announcement in June. The situation became less stable when the administration’s State Department announced it was reducing embassy staff and issuing a travel warning for Cuba after American diplomats serving in the country suffered strange headaches and other head maladies.
A final version of Cuban travel regulations was published this fall, and after a deeper analysis, most operators and agents were satisfied that little had changed.
Geopolitical turmoil abroad
The U.S. also jousted with Turkey over travel visas; and closely monitored terrorist events, including three this spring in short succession in the U.K. and a truck attack in the popular Las Ramblas district of Barcelona. .
To address possible attacks in the air, the U.S. temporarily banned large electronics from being carried onboard airplanes, eventually freeing up those rules this fall.
Some of the political turmoil that confounded travelers and agents alike was generated outside the U.S. In January, Barcelonans protested over tourism, part of a trend in cities and destinations around the world being forced to respond to the impact visitors are having on the local quality of life.
Suppliers stir the pot
Agents also found themselves having to explain airline overbooking rules and offering advice to travelers in case they were asked to involuntarily remove themselves from their airplane seats. For about a week in April, United Airlines put the issue on the front pages of major newspapers, and at the top of the headline cable news programs, as video went viral of airport police manhandling a doctor on the now infamous Flight 3411 from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Delta Airlines became embroiled in a similar social media fracas a few weeks later, when it tried to force a family to give up a seat they purchased on a flight from Hawaii.
Meanwhile, British Airways, Air France and KLM joined a list of airlines imposing surcharges on bookings made outside of the emerging New Distribution Capability (NDC) channels they are constructing to provide better content availability for travel agents.
Instead of penalizing agents and consumers, American Airlines announced it would offer an incentive payment for NDC bookings. Agents meeting at the annual ASTA global convention expressed their ire and confusion with the developments.
On the ground, Marriott International raised the prospect of higher consumer cancellation fee payments when it increased its cancellation policy to 48 hours prior to arrival. While the measure was expected to mostly trouble business travelers, travel agents were once again placed in the position of having to inform clients and bear the brunt of their feedback.
Dark clouds loomed into the fall
What had already registered as a tempestuous year only worsened as summer’s warmth began to wane. At the end of August, while more than 1,000 industry attendees convened in San Diego for the annual ASTA global convention, Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston and southeast Texas for days, dropping more than 65 inches of rain in some places.
Houston’s airports were closed for days and tens of thousands of flights were delayed and canceled, and agents scrambled into action to rebook travelers and fix broken vacations.
Many travel agents not only faced the challenge of helping their clients overcome obstacles, but some of them faced severe personal challenges as the result of the storms. Among them was agent Janis Peel, whose first floor of her suburban Houston home was inundated and had to be gutted.
But just as Houston had begun to dry out, weather disturbances in the Caribbean started to churn, spawning Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Category 5 storms that wrecked havoc across Barbuda, Turks & Caicos, St. Maarten and the Virgin Islands, and south Florida. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and dozens of resorts were damaged, and some still are not open.
Puerto Rico is only now launching marketing for the peak winter season, as millions of residents still report only spotty electricity and cellphone service.
Finally, October found America facing its largest mass shooting ever, when a gunman occupied a suite at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and rained bullets down on hundreds of outdoor concertgoers across the street, killing 58. The city experienced tourist cancellations as the country grieved, and the travel industry struggled to process the horror, and go about its business.
But through it all, travel agents remained vigilant, and customer-focused, putting in late nights to extricate clients from difficult situations, earning them high marks and the ultimate in gratitude, a heartfelt thank you.