Reservation Servicing Fees and Underqualified Travel Agents

By | February 8, 2010
NEW YORK - MARCH 3:  President of Virgin Atlan...
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So, you’ve booked through a travel agent. That can include Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz…these are giant travel agencies, but they are still travel agencies, in terms of functions. They make reservations, issue tickets, change reservations, reissue tickets, etc. To put it into one simple term: they are authorized to act as sales agents for one or more airlines.

The benefits for travel agents have changed over the years. The traditional model for agencies is commission-based. The airline would offer a percent commission on every ticket sold. There is still some of that, but airlines in the US have pretty much eliminated the practice. Some agencies still get private fares only they can sell, however, which is why, aside from some lack of knowledge on the part of the public, still keep them in business.

We want to emphasize, as we have in the past, that a well-qualified and knowledgeable travel agent is worth their weight in gold when arranging a complicated reservation. Even a travel agent who will do the legwork and research for you, even if they had no particular expertise, has a place in value-added service. But many travel agents are just not anywhere near these levels.

The relationship between travel agencies and airlines is beyond the scope of this post, and changes depending on agent and airline. But, the job of an agent is to provide all of the reservations servicing functions. Too many agents seem to believe their obligation ends once the ticket is sold. Most agency contracts state that the agent has control of the reservation prior to departure, barring certain irregular situations. Agents reserve the right to charge service fees on top of airline imposed fees for any function they provide.

But agencies, especially the online agencies, who often employ call centers full of insufficiently trained personnel, often refer people to the airline for functions they are capable of doing. We use the word capable loosely, referring to technical capability, not knowledge or skill of their personnel, which varies. But the same can be said for airline reservations agents as well.

Airlines have created a system to encourage passengers to make their change with the agencies.

  • United Airlines imposes a Reservation Servicing Fee of $25 for voluntary changes made to tickets purchased through external sources. They make exceptions for frequent fliers and fully refundable tickets, and a few other use cases. United Airlines justifies this by saying the fee is is reflective of the handling required in changing an externally created reservation and that it is ‘similar’ to the ones the agencies charge.
  • American Airlines imposes a similar fee.
  • Delta Air Lines maxes out the list of these three carriers, charging $50 for “External Tickets”

So, essentially, if you decided to buy a ticket through an ‘external’ source’ and you wish to change it, you may have difficulty changing it with them, or go back to the airline and be charged for them servicing your reservation on top of their change fee. Some have reported that even agencies with no fees seem to assess higher collections for changes than the airline, which indicates something is wrong.

It may be a cynical view, but this system does not seem to be fair. There is a lot about the industry that can be unfair, but we should demand a certain level of competency. If we buy a ticket from an airline, we shouldn’t be charged a fee by the airline to service it because we bought it through a third-party the airline itself licensed to do so. Personally, we think the agency should be charged a fee every time the airline takes over a reservation, with reasonable exceptions.

The airlines and the agencies both have their flaws. But what is fair to the customer in between these two? To be provided service, with a reasonable fee to be assessed for that service. Airline change fees are unreasonable enough without the inherent contradiction of airlines relying on third-party sales while penalizing those who take advantage of such sales. And certainly neither airline nor agent adequately discloses what a narrow tightrope a customer will have to walk between the two of them.