Travel agents take airline ancillary sales into their own hands

By Kate Rice
If consumers want to comparison shop the total cost of an airline ticket that includes ancillary services such as checked baggage or a seat with extra legroom, their best bet is to visit several airline websites and create their own spreadsheet.

Or they could just call a travel agent.

It turns out that, increasingly, agents are not waiting around for the airlines and GDSs to come to terms over listings of ancillary services. According to the 2012 ASTA Technology and Web Usage Report, 24% of agents are now booking ancillaries for their clients, up from 17% last year.

Most often the sale is a premium seat, and typically the sale is made by going directly to an airline's website or, occasionally, by calling the carrier directly. Either way, agents complain that it is a time-consuming, manual process that could be much more efficient if done in a GDS.

The number of clients taking advantage of these services is still small, in part because some travelers are just becoming aware of the option, said Tom Carlsen, branch president for Tzell Travel in New York. But ancillary sales are growing fast enough that travel agencies are eager for at least some of these services to be made available in the GDSs.

At the moment, there is no assurance that airlines, GDSs and the federal government will resolve the dispute anytime soon. In fact, at least one travel management company is said to be designing its own program to automate the process. That company last week declined to comment on its plans.

It's not just travel agents who want to be able to comparison shop the prices of all elements of an airline ticket; so do consumers themselves. A study by Harris Interactive found that 94% of Americans who booked their travel last summer using an online travel company agreed with the statement, "All airline fee information should be available to travel agents and online travel websites."

At least one government official in a position to do something about it agrees. Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general and chair of the Department of Transportation Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, said it is "outrageous that people can't comparison shop" for airline ancillaries. Her committee is scheduled to send its recommendations for consumer protection to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood later this month.

Airlines disagree with Madigan and consumers, insisting that shopping for ancillaries is already totally transparent, since the carriers list these fees on their websites, although each airline displays them in different ways.

Currently, agents who book ancillaries for their clients are the best source for such comparison shopping. They find that most of what they're booking are premium seats, and because they're usually booking a handful of airlines, they've committed much of that pricing to memory.

Harriet Parks of Preferred Travel, a Uniglobe Travel Center agency, books most of her clients on Delta Air Lines, so that simplifies the process for her.

Tzell's Carlsen said that he and the agents in his New York office generally are booking premium seats on American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines.

Agents do have some GDS access to tools that provide more information. Sabre, for example, provides data on ancillary fees so agents can shop these fees and compare them. However they cannot book most of these services within Sabre. (U.S. agents can book seats in WestJet, prepaid bags on Air New Zealand and prepaid bags and lounge passes on Alitalia in Sabre. US Airways' Choice Seats are also expected to be in Sabre soon.)

"It's cumbersome," complained Vahan Dede, office manager for the corporate division at Montrose Travel, No. 54 in Travel Weekly's 2012 Power List. Agents type in the client's reservation number to book premium seats and then create an invoice for that. He said Montrose agents can book ancillary services for British Airways in the GDS.

David Holyoke, president of Travel Leaders Corporate, noted that a survey of 45 agents found that 38% book ancillary services using airline websites, while 22% book them by phone. Often, they'll use both.

"Sixty-four percent of our team state that it is very time-consuming," he said.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel agents find themselves clicking through from as few as two screens to as many as 10 when booking ancillary services for their clients, according to a company spokeswoman. Other agencies said their agents could typically book an ancillary fee in four or five screens. It can take extra time, as much as 10 minutes, whereas simply booking a ticket can take two minutes.

Delta's site got the most positive reviews from agents, though many said there were several websites that worked well. Travel Leaders Corporate agents cited American, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue as having the best websites for viewing and processing these requests.

But Ann Waters, a Travel Leaders franchise owner in Fort Wayne, Ind., said agents tend to like the site they use most often. She herself said that Delta and American have the best websites for booking ancillaries.

And, even though many agents have become familiar enough with online sites that they can book an ancillary service fairly swiftly, it remains an inefficient process, requiring a separate login, manually entering information and generating an invoice.

The process is much more daunting for a consumer who is unfamiliar with the websites and is trying to compare pricing, only to find that each airline's site has its own way of displaying ancillary information.

American displays a link to its charges for baggage and optional services on its home page, but you have to click on the link and then scroll through a lengthy list of baggage fees (first checked bag, second checked bag, third checked bag, overweight bag, oversize bag, etc.) before getting to preferred seats, travel for unaccompanied minors, priority boarding and other options.

On United's site, Mileage Plus members can type in their member number and credit card and instantly see what their baggage fee is.

Further complicating the process, some carriers let users buy a premium seat while making their reservations, while others require users to buy an economy seat first and then buy an upgrade.

On American's site, users simply click on a Preferred Seat and see its cost while making their booking, just as they would if they were buying an economy seat.

But to buy one of Delta's Economy Comfort seats, customers must first purchase an economy seat and then go to the "My Trips" section of Delta's website to buy an Economy Comfort seat. The website describes the benefit of Economy Comfort, but the price is not displayed anywhere.

However, once users book an economy seat and begin the process of upgrading to an Economy Comfort seat, the site details the price of that seat.

Southwest displays the cost of its Early Bird check-in on the page without having to click to find out what the charge will be. Tzell's Carlsen said Southwest's site is the best because customers can book its ancillary services at the same time they are making a reservation.

In some instances an agency has a preferred supplier agreement in which the airline waives the fees for some ancillary services for its customers. Tzell Travel has some contracts like this, according to Monty Swaney, Tzell's vice president of operations.

Waters said her agency is looking forward to the rollout this fall of Travelport's Options Integrator application for Delta's Economy Plus seats, because Delta is her agency's largest carrier in terms of volume sold. And Carlsen lamented the fact that once Continental merged with United, agents could no longer book United's Economy Plus seats in the GDS.

But agents are seeing some progress. Troy Williams, director of Tzell's branch in San Antonio, known locally as Corporate Travel Planners, said his agency was about to take a class in how to book US Airways Choice Seats in Sabre, which will go into beta testing Oct. 22 and get a full rollout in November.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly. 
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