f all the airline people I've met over the years, none has been more clear-headed and honest about the relationship between airlines and agents than Elizabeth Milward.

Liz spent 44 years working for airlines, beginning with now-defunct Guest Airways (a small, Swedish-owned airline serving Mexico), where she "did everything -- passenger services, cargo, manifest, weight and balance" in the carrier's Bermuda office.

She moved to (the original) Pan Am in 1961, and worked her way up from passenger services representative to a position as director of travel agency sales. When she left Pan Am, the airline renamed a Boeing 747 "Clipper Elizabeth Milward" for a day in her honor.

She ended her career at International Airlines Travel Agent Network, from which she retired earlier this year after serving as its vice president, sales and marketing, since 1986.

Liz loved working for the airlines -- she said she would happily "do it all over again" -- but she knows what it's like to be up against them as well.

In 1964, she was working for Pan Am at the ticket counter in London and saw that the next step in career progression was to become an account manager. At least, that's what she had observed in the careers of her male peers.

When an account manager position opened up, she applied. She was told she certainly met the qualifications but that this position wouldn't be good for her because, being a woman, she couldn't "belly up to the bar" with her clients. But, they said, they'd keep her in mind should an account open up for one of the fashion houses or embassies.

Furious, she applied for a job with British Airways-predecessor BOAC, which she got. But before she ever reported to work, a Pan Am vice president who heard about the situation intervened and gave her an even better job -- one that involved a transfer to New York from London.

"There was no such thing as equal opportunity in those days. You had to make your own opportunity," she said.

And that, in a nutshell, is her advice to agents who find themselves frustrated with the airlines.

"I had a great career. But my pay was lousy and, as a woman, I had to claw my way anywhere I wanted to go, and even then I found myself underpaid," she said.

There are parallels in the situation she found herself in and the one some agents now face, she believes.

"The airline/agent relationship has always been a very uneasy one," she said. "With the airlines, it's always a question of money and cash flow. It has never been any different."

Milward has "a great deal of admiration for travel agents" and believes that if they don't care for the way airlines treat them, they have plenty of other options -- they can, in other words, "make their own opportunities."

"I've seen agents who are both tenacious and quite ingenious about how they approach their business, and are doing quite well," she said. "Agents offer a service that no large institution is going to be able to duplicate. They're economical, and provide value-for-money to both the industry and consumers. Even the airlines know they can't do without agents."

What is needed, she believes, is more clarity on the situation on the part of both agents and airlines. "The relationship is difficult, and always has been. That hasn't changed. Both sides need to understand that and then move forward."

Liz Milward understood her options when she was initially denied her promotion at Pan Am. She could have accepted what she considered to be unfair treatment and grumbled about it until the day she retired. Instead, as a single mother at the time, she was prepared to find a way to provide for her family and retain her dignity.

"It's about willingness to change," she said. "Those who can, I sense, will do well even if they don't care for the way airlines treat them. But if they're unable to change, that's a problem."


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