Op-Ed: Airlines Need to Change Their Tuneby Tom Brussow /
On a positive note, business is booming and the travel industry has banded together quite harmoniously in the tenuous symphony that is the “coming out of Covid” travel industry. The lone exception, unfortunately, is our airline friends who continue to drag us down as they are so frequently playing out of tune. To be clear, I’m not just referring to their operational challenges, but also to their bigger-picture methods of doing business, especially as it impacts travel advisors and their clients.
As travel advisors, tour operators, cruise lines, and others are collaborating to innovate, improvise and adapt in support of each other and our shared customers, the airlines stubbornly stick to their greatest hits, with seemingly no real interest in updating their material to meet the newest trends.
This is confounding for advisors as we, in service to our clients, are left to cover and clean up the many messes they continue to create. In doing so, we are also left wondering how any major business sector can expect to be successful when they seemingly care so little about their customers, and are, at best, indifferent to a key component of their distribution network.
So, if that’s the song the airlines are intent on playing, the rest of us are going to have to cover our ears to ease the pain and do our best to keep the audience coming back. Or, how about if the airlines would take this opportunity to join the chorus of the faithful and make some important and long overdue changes that will put them in a better position to be successful moving forward?
Here are my five areas of advice for focused change that would make a world of difference:
1. Take Accountability
What could be more novel and yet simple? The sole business proposition of the airlines is they are paid by consumers to safely provide transportation from point A to point B. That is it. When they fail to do that, regardless of the circumstances, they should step up and own it. Make it right 100% of the time. Don’t shirk, evade, lie, or obfuscate your clear responsibility to the customer to save a buck.
2. Work Together with Your Fellow Airlines and Take a Leadership Role
Dear airline CEOs: Together you are stronger and better. Get together in a room and figure out how you can all do better. Remember the good old days of Rule 240? Protect the customer and get them to their destination instead of leaving them high and dry to fend for themselves or sending them home disappointed because that family vacation to Jamaica they’ve been dreaming about for months is now ruined.
Also, with so much market power and business influence, the leaders of the airlines need to be more visible, approachable, and engaged. In today’s travel landscape, compared to the many great leaders across the spectrum of suppliers, they are essentially invisible and inconsequential from my perspective.
3. Acknowledge and Appreciate the Role and Contribution of Travel Advisors
As advisors, along with driving a significant amount of their revenue, we take on the arduous work of dealing with the onerous airline business policies and cleaning up the many messes they create. For all of our efforts on these two fronts, the airlines unapologetically believe we are due exactly NOTHING for the countless hours we expend in caring for our mutual clients.
Imagine a universe where the airlines paid their fair share and the impact this would have on the well-being of the travel advisor community. One in which advisors were afforded fair compensation for their work, non-rev flight benefits, improved ease of doing business, and access to sales support/service staff. There is little doubt this would be a game-changing development for travel advisors.
4. Better Manage the Leisure Vacation Package Market
For years, the airlines made the vast majority of their money from “high yield” business travelers—corporate and government contracts and meeting and incentive customers who routinely paid the highest of their fares. As a result, leisure travel represented a small piece of the profit pie and was afforded little time, attention, or investment. A greater focus on the leisure travel market is warranted. Here is how to do that:
-Create processes/programs that will allow you to identify the travel advisors who are selling your product. I sell a significant amount of airline products. Yet, the respective airlines have absolutely no idea that I even exist, what or how much I am selling, or how to go about growing my sales/market share.
-Develop an advisor engagement, communication, and relationship-building game plan. Let the travel industry know that the airlines are on the side of the travel advisors and are committed to building their business and relationships with advisors in very specific and much-needed/overdue ways.
-Develop agent support vehicles for problem resolution, business development opportunities, training, marketing tools, etc. Every business sector in the travel industry, except for the airlines, has widely invested in these areas for many years. It is basically standard operating procedure.
-Assemble a group of top leisure agency owners to help you understand the landscape, challenges, and opportunities and build a plan. From there, the sky is the limit.
5. Be Easy and Enjoyable to Work With
The harsh reality is that working with any airline-related issue is truly painful, time-consuming, and hugely frustrating for travel advisors. Why does this have to be the case?
First, airline executives should do the math and consider the ramifications of a scenario where travel advisors stopped selling and servicing their products. How many more reservation and customer service support employees would be needed to fill that giant gap? How many millions of dollars would that cost?
There are some quick, easy, and inexpensive opportunities here to examine business policies and processes and the ease in which advisors (and their clients) can do business with the airlines. There is a long list of examples where the policies just don't make any sense, create tons of unnecessary work and frustration, and are a disservice to the customer.
First, let’s start with a commitment to a business philosophy that says that the number one mission, absolutely no matter what, is to get the customer to their destination as quickly, and with the least amount of hassle, stress, and disappointment as possible.
How about a dedicated advisor sales and customer service support staff that are easy to reach and are empowered to assist in quickly resolving customer issues? This seems reasonable and represents the very minimum that could be done.
If the airlines had the force of will and the good sense to address even one of these opportunities, that would certainly be music to the ears of thousands of travel advisors and the millions of clients we serve. I remain optimistic and offer up any further contribution that I make to bring about changes to an industry that so desperately needs them.
Because the rest of us up here up on the stage need the airlines to perform at their very best and hold up their end with every note. For, if they do not or will not, it means the entire orchestra that is the travel industry will suffer. The audience will continue to judge us and make their future purchases based on the weakest performers among us…the airlines.