ASTA Chairman Sees ‘Reengagement’ With Airlines

by Michele McDonald

ASTA and the travel agency community can work “in lock step” with airlines and their trade association, Airlines For America, on a number of issues, ASTA chairman Roger Block said.

“The reality is that there are so many things on which we are aligned, in areas like consumer protection and regulation,” he said.

Block spoke with Travel Market Report shortly after his return home from the ASTA Global Conference in Washington, where senior airline executives appeared on the stage for the first time in 20 years.

Block, who is president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group, was a founding officer of ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Committee. He took note of the fact that although ASTA had many corporate travel agency members and a number of seminars on corporate travel, none included the participation of airlines, which play a key role in the sector.

“Their product is critical to our success,” he said. “They need to understand our operational challenges. You need communication.”

Much of the communication between ASTA and the airlines had come to an end when the airlines began a series of commission cuts in 1995 that culminated in the elimination of base commissions in 2002. ASTA went so far as to revoke United’s membership in 1999 after the carrier announced one of the cuts.

But airlines continued to work with agents over the next two decades, Block said. “They still had relationships, but their staffs had been pared down.”

Many agencies did not survive the cuts. But those that did were creative, Block said. “We saw the advent of specialty agencies. The health of the industry today is good, and most people are doing well.”

As for the airlines, “We all know they went into bankruptcy because they needed to get their costs under control.”

Block came to the realization that “there was so much more we could do” if ASTA and the airlines worked together, “especially in this regulatory environment,” he said. “We don’t agree on everything, but we need to be partners.”  

So he picked up the phone and called Bob Somers, vice president of global sales at Delta Air Lines; Dave Hilfman, senior vice president of worldwide sales at United Airlines; and Derek DeCross, vice president of global sales for American Airlines. “I personally contacted them,” he said. “They agreed immediately.”

The three airline executives were greeted warmly by the audience, and Block believes that their appearance signifies “the start of a reengagement of the airlines with our trade association.”

“The world changes,” he said. “You need to adapt.”

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