As a nor’easter approached the Northeast yesterday, travel agents scrambled to rebook clients after New York-area airports cancelled or delayed thousands of flights.
More than two feet of snow was expected in areas of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, with the National Weather Service calling a blizzard warning in sections of each state.
Altogether, more than 1,000 delays and 2,600 cancellations occurred at airports yesterday. More than 3,300 cancellations have been announced by airlines for tomorrow.
Airlines have already started cancelling flights planned for Wednesday in anticipation of further disruption.
Help from the airlines
Agents meanwhile are taking advantage of the airlines waiving change fees in advance of the storm.
“In general, the majority of clients are purchasing travel insurance and the airlines to their credit – which you can rarely say – have started giving waivers in advance for situations like this for the last year or two,” said Rick Ardis, owner of Ardis Travel in East Rutherford, N.J.
“You don’t have to ask for them [anymore].”
Ardis said the airlines have created more work for agents by being proactive about the waivers, but it ultimately makes life easier for both travelers and travel professionals.
“The airlines have done this so they don‘t have to deal with crowds at the airport,” said Ardis. “It’s less work for them and they push the work on to us.
“It does, however, make it easier for us to be able to tell customers upfront what their options are.”
Being proactive—it’s key
For Lea Cahill, chief operating officer of Atlas Travel in Milford, Mass., the key is being proactive in order to help clients adjust their flights as cancellations first occur.
“There’s an amount of proactiveness that you can do,” Cahill said. “But even when you’re being proactive, some flight that hasn’t been cancelled does cancel, and you have to be reactive.”
The most difficult issue for Cahill has been handing group and meetings business. While the technology tools have evolved to better serve affected clients, there are still many moving parts to any meeting that has been planned.
“We started looking several days ago at the meetings that were going out, whether they wanted to make changes and if the airlines would be flexible,” said Cahill.
Atlas Travel’s own sales team had to have a flight moved up to avoid the storm.
“Even if you can delay a meeting for a day or two, then you have to decide if the destination, which is frequently a warm weather location, can even move the group back a day or two,” said Cahill.
“That’s why pre-notification and reaching out to folks and getting them out early is crucial.”
The airlines’ new tendency to waive change fees before disruptive weather even hits has made it easier for Atlas Travel to rebook corporate travel.
“The airlines have gotten much better at giving waivers in advance,” Cahill added. “In the past, they waited until the weather happened. They [also wouldn’t] typically refund fares without penalty.”
Valerie Wilson Travel has been working “around the clock” to re-schedule or re-route clients, said Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of the New York City-based agency, a member of Virtuoso.
“January is a very busy time of year and we have hundreds of clients traveling at all times,” she said. “For example we have over 525 invoices between today and tomorrow.”
The agency has “emergency standard operating procedures” in place for weather events like this including daily reports for travel advisors telling them which clients are traveling within the next 48 hours.
That enables them to be proactive in dealing with clients.
Wilson Wetty too is satisfied with the airlines’ handling of these kinds of weather events.
“Airlines are very efficient and committed to making adjustments and communicating their policies with their travel partners,” she said.
Wilson Wetty also noted that travel challenges like this massive storm continue to demonstrate agents’ value.
“It is in circumstances like this when we can give tremendous value and comfort to our clients,” she said.
Avoiding the problem
Agents outside the Northeast faced their own challenges. They have been trying to move their clients to flights at the airports that are still functioning.
“Many of our clients fly Star Alliance airlines from Europe with connections in Newark,” said Csilla Dali, owner of Global Voyages in Chicago. “They are contacting us via email and we are changing their flights to Wednesday or Thursday.
“For some, we are trying to reroute them so they can go directly to Detroit or Chicago.”
Dali also said that having the waivers in advance is a big help.
“The airlines have sent out emergency notifications in advance – with waivers in the email – and that works out nicely,” she said Dali.
“We are rebooking using those waivers.”
Additional reporting by Harvey Chipkin