Google wants airlines to disrupt, well, Google.
According to Skift.com, a presentation by the search site to the World Low Cost Airline Congress held last week in London revealed what consumers and traditional travel agents have known for a long time: Booking airline tickets online is not as easy as it’s cracked up to be.
Google’s Scott Friesen told the audience, “The travel journey is incredibly complicated. The way people are booking their travel is even more so.” He urged attendees to simplify the process.
As evidence, he showed a journey chart based on a study of U.K. consumers. To start, 54% didn’t have a destination in mind when they sat down at their computers. Among the stops on the circuitous online journey to booking a ticket were five different types of sites, including travel news websites, search sites, advice sites such as Trip Advisor, aggregator sites, and social media sites. In all, the average was 32.5 visits to 10.3 websites.
As previously reported by Travel Market Report, traditional travel agents have been gaining ground on OTAs for the past four years. “The percentage of travelers who report they’re using the services of a traditional travel agent has risen for four years straight,” said Peter Yesawich, Vice Chairman of MMGY, which conducted the research, published in its annual Portrait of the American Traveler. “The highest rate of growth of traditional travel agents is among millennials.”
Stacy Small, founder of Los Angeles-based Elite Travel International, told TMR, “I have a client who is taking a Seabourn cruise. Over the weekend, she didn’t want to bother me, so she went online and booked airline flights. It cost her $36,000 for two roundtrip first class tickets on Singapore Airlines. When she told me, I was able to rebook it for $31,000, including special services at the airport they required, but didn’t even know the airline would provide.”
Small added that for her customers, using her to book air is a no-brainer. “We manage the booking. We get daily updates on schedule changes. The clients don’t always get notified about schedule changes. We take care of special meals. We get seat assignments cleared that aren’t available online so they can sit together. We have executive level contacts at the airlines who can flag VIP clients, get fares honored or help when there is a disruption.”
Michael Holtz, founder and CEO of New York-based Smartflyer, said the Google research didn’t surprise him, either. “Every day I hear stories about consumers spending a half hour or more on the phone trying to get something done that a good travel agent can do in minutes.”
As an example, he said, if a family of four wants to fly American Airlines from Dallas to London, when they search for fares, travel websites will only show the lowest fare available for four tickets. But an agent might be able to find three seats at a fare hundreds of dollars less, with savings into the thousands of dollars.
Holtz said consumers, even frequent fliers, often don’t pay attention to the fine print. With the proliferation of code-sharing, “hundreds of people go to the wrong terminal every day.” At Smartflyer, the rule of thumb is to book clients on the operating carrier, so that when they look at their itinerary in their smart phone it’s instantly apparent which airline is actually flying the plane.
Agents did agree that top-level frequent fliers who are just booking a specific flight with their favorite airline do not take as many steps as the Google report indicates. However, Anne Scully of McCabe Worldwide Travel in McLean, VA, said good agents know the various aircraft the airlines fly; they also know which domestic flights use planes that normally fly international routes, and have roomier seats in first and business class. “Why pay more than 84% of the people on the plane for the worst seat?” she asked.
Mary Jean Tully, CEO/founder of Tully Luxury Travel in Toronto, Canada, puts herself in the position of the consumer. “When I try to do it myself, it is easy to see why you need somebody who knows the systems, and knows where and how to look,” she said.
Tully said her agency also helps frequent fliers book rewards seats for $200 per ticket. “It’s frustrating for clients because at 10 p.m. there are no seats, then at 10:03 p.m. there are three seats available.” And good agents use consolidators to find better fares, she added. “Most consumers don’t even know what a consolidator is.”
“People’s time is worth money,” Scully said. “The Google research shows how much time it takes a consumer to book and airline ticket. It’s a good example of why it makes sense to use a good travel agent.”