Interview: CheapOair

By | November 23, 2009
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CheapOair is, as we define it, an online travel agency.  To be precise, CheapOair is the brandname, Fareportal, Inc. is a Technology Company and Travelong, Inc.  is an accredited ARC/ Travel Agency. As they put it, Fareportal, Inc. is the operating fulfillment company for CheapOair, and Travelong, Inc. is the travel agency.

Their website describes them as “comprised of dedicated travel professionals, each with over 25 years in consumer travel and tourism. Together, they shape the vision of CheapOair, to provide a wide selection of travel products and services for today’s budget conscious traveler.

We’ve had words about them before, when we criticized some of their practices online. By all reports, they have made some improvements in the last few years. For one, they now have a toll-free number. After someone we follow on Twitter turned out to be writing for them, we asked for an interview, and sent off a list of questions, from which we produced this piece.

Flight Wisdom: What benefits do you feel your organization offers a customer in an era where people are increasingly booking direct? Not just in regards to special fares, which we invite you to comment on, but service-wise?*

CheapoAir: We at CheapOair build our itineraries through the use of our own complex mathematical algorithm whereby we combine low-cost carriers with major scheduled airlines to provide more flight options as well as better and greater pricing options. The resulting multiple airfare data and multi-airline itineraries provide customers more options to additionally save money. We also display opaque negotiated airfares which may be cheaper than some published airfares. The airline’s name is revealed only after the purchase is completed.

Our negotiated database consists of over 18 million airfares. We have a dedicated team of data analysts which upload all negotiated air fares on a daily basis so that the latest fares sales are always displayed to consumers. Furthermore, by utilizing multiple GDS’s we are in a position to offer a greater diversity, and at times much better fares.We are a hybrid of an OTA (Online Travel Agency) in that we offer 2 platforms for booking flights, through our website and our customer support center 24/7.

Flight Wisdom: Over the last few years, where there were many complaints lodged against your organization, what changes in policy and practice have been made to respond to them?

In today’s online “give it to me now” travel market environment, no company can survive let alone succeed, unless they provide superior customer service. We know this and continuously work hard to enhance our customer support levels at all times.

We receive numerous compliments about our agents who walk the extra mile to resolve customer issues. Since we sell predominantly restricted and discounted non-refundable airfares, many times customers are surprised to learn that processing refunds is a time consuming procedure. Our Billing and Refunds department is especially trained to handle any customer refund or billing related questions. Additionally, we also have introduced “Customer Service Plus” for handling complex customer service issues which are managed by our Escalation Agents.

Furthermore, we are featuring IVR technology in our call center providing real time booking confirmations, booking status and handling calls based on priorities of urgency. In addition, we have added a dedicated team which provides schedule change information to all of our customers.Our mission is to provide excellent customer service ensuring that all of our customers have an enjoyable travel experience booking with CheapOair.

Flight Wisdom: What sort of guarantees do you provide to your customers when there is a problem? The most common problems people complained about online appear to be about billing, where your organization charged more than agreed upon, or when there was a cancellation and the customer claims they were not notified or assisted in rebooking?

CheapOair: The majority of the tickets we sell both online and through the call center are non-refundable. Most customers don’t understand that time consuming refund processes are not our company’s doing but are in fact subject to the terms and conditions of the corresponding suppliers. Refunds for non-refundable tickets require long negotiations with the suppliers and are often unattainable. In order to obtain a refund, we must convince the airline partners to provide special waivers to process customer refunds, which may not be as timely as customers expect. At all times we work hard and strive to satisfactorily accommodate customers in our endeavors obtaining refunds from the suppliers. Rules and terms for flight cancellation, re-booking and/or changing flights on non-refundable tickets are mandated by the individual airlines, which we cannot override or waive without the explicit permission of the respective airline.

Flight Wisdom: Tell us about your social media initiatives. How do you feel your presence on Twitter, Facebook, your blogging, etc. help you interact with potential and current customers?

We are committed to transparent operations within the social media space. Unlike many companies, our SM practice is non-robotic and consists of an experienced team of professionals. Many social media tools have helped us identify happy and not so happy customers. When we encounter complaints on any type of SM platform, we immediately take action by contacting the customer to resolve the complaint. Our Social Media team handles all cases and are continuing to working hard to make sure all customers are ultimately satisfied.

Flight Wisdom: CheapOair charges a $24 per person fee for the booking of tickets. Some online travel agencies charge lower fees, or have recently waived these fees entirely. What do customers get for their money?

CheapOair: Our service fees vary and range from $0 to $24 depending on the special airfares we have negotiated with the airlines. In return, customers receive 24/7 support, exclusively negotiated airfares which in many instances are lower than competitors including the service fee, and flight itineraries with airlines that are not available through other OTA’s.

Flight Wisdom: Many of the comments on various blogs are signed by Renee Andrews, identified as your Online Customer Service Manager. The one posted on our website two years ago was accompanied within minutes of a fake positive review posted from the same IP address. How do you explain this practice, and have you eliminated it?

CheapOair: As the Director of Customer Service & Social Media Engagement, Renee Andrews has a strict policy of 100% transparency and honesty with customers. The post that you are referring to was dated two years back and we have no knowledge about its posting or poster. We can guarantee that we do not practice false postings. Customers seeking assurance of our practices and for customer service issues may contact Renee directly at

Flight Wisdom: We want to fairly consider recommending Cheapoair to our readers, but given these past experiences, we need you to sell us and our readers on recommending your service.

CheapOair: We continue to improve our product and our services every day so that customers have only a good experience with CheapOair. We offer 24/7 customer support, which is unique among our competitors.Customer Service has improved significantly and new features are introduced continuously to meet our high standards and those of our customers, such as: increasing the number of agents that speak to customers, recurring agent training programs with an emphasis on billing and refunds, IVR enhancements for call prioritization and escalation, real time confirmation, and booking status. Additionally, we have added a dedicated team which provides schedule change information to all our customers. We at CheapOair take customer satisfaction very serious and have reached out to customers to better understand their needs and requests via our site’s customer feedback surveys. Their voices are of great value to us and we carefully listen to them and make certain that we continually improve our service on all levels.

As we aren’t customers of CheapOair, we can’t comment on their service. But this week, we received help from Chris Elliott’s blog on that, when he wrote a post entitledCheapOAir Made My Mother Cry.” It tells the story of Mary Ellyn Hutton, who bought a ticket from Cincinnati to Tallinn, Estonia, via Newark and Stockholm. Two days after she booked, she gets an email saying the due to technical difficulties, they couldn’t process her payment and the fare is $200 more. She arrives in Stockholm and waits in line for her connection, but is told she can’t board, and is sent back to what we assume was the issuing airline on the ticket to rebook. They have no record of her and she is forced to purchase a new ticket for another $538.

Mary Ellyn emails CheapOair from the airport, and gets no response till eight days later, when she is instructed to email her credit card statements to them, which she does. Mary, not having been issued new tickets or instructions, goes to the airport on her last day in Estonia and buys a new ticket back to Stockholm to catch her flight to Newark on another carrier, incurring another $277. The Huttons apparently got nowhere in their refund until Elliott got involved, after which CheapOair refunded them $800.

Chris Elliott did however, comment that, “CheapoAir, which has been very responsive to this case, expressed concern about the distress they caused one of their customers. They moved very quickly to fix this…CheapoAir didn’t express concern until I got involved, It should have been more responsive to the customer’s inquiry, of course.

Now, this is unfortunately the type of story we see from many of the online booking agencies. So, what can we conclude? If they have indeed stopped posting false reviews and improved their response to customer problems and complaints, then they certainly rank up there with the other online travel agencies. And that may be all they can hope for.

We acknowledge their comment that refunds are dependent on the airline. But, in the interests of good customer service, if they legitimately felt the customer deserved it,  they could choose to issue the refund out of their own pocket and sort it out with the airline later. Or pay for the refund even if the airline would not. The airlines are certainly as much to blame for not promptly responding to refund requests in various circumstances, so we cannot single out CheapOair in that regard.

We’ve always advised people to check multiple sites to find the best deal. While our first bit of advice is that if the price direct is the same as the price elsewhere, you should book direct, agencies do get discounts from airlines based on volume and other considerations, and thus may offer a better price. Some agencies can offer a more personalized experience and expert assistance.

As for the issue of service, there is always room for improvement. They said it best themselves: No company can survive, let alone succeed, unless they provide superior customer service. A lesson that we wish more companies would take to heart, and a lesson we hope CheapOair never forgets.