The reports of chaos at multiple airports are now legion. Faced with a large upswing in demand, the airlines have thus far shown themselves unprepared for the surge. It may not be their fault entirely, but the airlines are the parties with the best opportunity to balance bookings with available flights. Scenes of airports crammed with upset passengers are commonplace, however, as flight after flight is delayed, then canceled. This can happen at any airport at any time. The situation will improve but likely not for a while.
Travel advisors obviously cannot control this situation. You book what your systems tell you is available. Given the spreading troubles, the question is: how are you to handle this with your clients?
I am reminded of the Scout motto: Be Prepared. The story may be apocryphal, but it is reported that “Upon hearing the Scout motto, someone asked Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell the inevitable follow-up question. “Prepared for what?” “Why, for any old thing,” he replied.”
That response well states what the modern travel advisor must do given the reality that even the best-laid plans are vulnerable to system problems that no one seems able to predict or control.
Mottos are easy to say, but not so easy to execute against. Many travelers have waited patiently through the pandemic for the day when they could resume visits to family or just enjoy a simple vacation away from home. Their anxiety about the pandemic contributes to the general unease as the word continues to spread about airline performance issues.
The travel advisor’s motto, I suggest, should be: “For every travel booking, have a back-up plan and a back-up plan to the back-up plan.”
Long gone are the days when a flight cancellation simply meant rebooking on a soon-to-depart flight with empty seats headed to your destination. If reports are correct, most flights are being booked to capacity or beyond. The scale of cancellations means that there are no ready substitutes for many travelers who arrive at the airport ill-equipped to deal with the physical and emotional costs of their disappointment when learning their “plans” are not going to be fulfilled. Few rational people will blame their travel advisor for these failures but in the heat of the moment, rationality is sometimes a rare commodity.
Thus, I believe that the wise travel advisor will perform several key tasks for every traveler booked and especially if, for example, the advisor knows there are special circumstances. Such circumstances are inordinate consequences that arise from travel plans being defeated. You can easily think of examples: a cruise departure at a distant port – the line is not going to hold the ship for delayed arriving passengers; a tour from the destination city with family that have not been together for years due to the pandemic; a critical business meeting at which the traveler’s attendance is expected and important.
The solution, limited but essential, is to create the two backup plans. I am not suggesting double-booking. That will simply make things worse for everyone. But every traveler booked by an advisor should arrive armed with a detailed explanation of what to do if the flight is canceled or delayed to the point where it no longer makes sense.
For those of us who insist on being “prepared,” this may involve simply equipping the traveler with emergency contact information through which to get reliable advice:
- the airline (probably useless, but still)
- a printed list of other numbers to call (you, the advisor, among others)
- a list of items to take to the airport for sustenance in the event of a delay (cereal bars, whatever the client likes)
- If children are traveling, suggestions for items to occupy them; it’s surprising how many families expect the kids to entertain themselves with nothing to do.
Being prepared for travel disruptions will not always compensate for the frustration, often leading to anger, when the “unexpected” happens. In a rare case, expressing anger at airline personnel may improve the situation but it usually will just worsen the situation. You cannot be the traveler’s personal guru to lead her in meditation at the airport. But you can respectfully remind your client that we are still in an unusual situation coming out of (we hope) the pandemic. The traveler should expect the unexpected and try to stay calm.
Some pointers from the professional travel advisor on these lines may help. It’s an individual decision, of course, because some people just don’t want to hear that life may not go as planned and/or they don’t like being told to “calm down.” But by preparing the client in advance you may avoid becoming the target called to do the undoable at the last minute.
These recommendations may require considerable extra work from the advisor. For example, if the clients are traveling a long distance to the airport or are making a tight connection somewhere, you may consider checking hotel availabilities nearby “just in case.” Availabilities can change quickly, of course, especially near busy hubs, but arming the client with some options (addresses and phone numbers come to mind) means the client may avoid that sense of isolation and helplessness that comes from stress and unfamiliarity. Since there are others in the same boat, even a few minutes of time saved in finding out who to call may advantage your clients.
It is obvious, I’m sure, that in arming the client with emergency instructions, you don’t want to create more stress than is warranted. Diplomacy and tact go a long way here. Everyone in your office that is booking air travel should have a detailed plan for providing the necessary information and how to present it. Preparation should be calming, not create more anxiety.
The future holds many questions, including the possible evolution of COVID -19 into other variants that will add to the uncertainties. The economy, however, should stabilize at some point, and air travel will return to a more reliable process. This may take some time. In the modern era, we have never faced a global challenge of this magnitude. Your own state of mind will influence the attitude of your clients when disruptions occur. Think about what you might do if you were the client. Then prepare them to do that.