The pandemic has forced every segment of the travel industry to create new strategies for success. For the airline industry, technology has proved especially important, as carriers aim to create a safer and more personalized customer experience. Those high-tech innovations are also strengthening the ability of travel advisors to sell air travel.
“The increase in technology in the airline industry has helped and will continue to help travelers feel confident in traveling safely,” says Andrea Norfolk, president of Shoreline Destinations in Finksburg, Maryland. “We were happy that airlines quickly implemented technology such as temperature checks, cleaning with electrostatic sprayers, updating the use of filtration systems, and adding touchless check-ins. All of these changes helped reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 and have helped travelers feel safer when flying.”
Clear channels of communication are especially crucial at times like this, according to Carla Passage, director of air and hotel technology, air supplier relations and service team at Ensemble Travel Group. “Airlines have been doing a good job of pushing SMS and e-mail messages to travelers with what to expect at the airport and onboard, as well as expanding the capabilities of their mobile apps to allow for more of a contactless experience, which will likely be the future of travel,” she says.
With travel restrictions and regulations in a state of flux for more than a year, today’s travelers — and travel advisors — rely on airline technology like never before, according to Vesna Mojas, director of air operations and special projects at The Travel Corporation, which owns 40 travel brands, including Trafalgar, Uniworld and Insight Vacations. “Technology is playing a huge role in helping travelers navigate through the myriad rules and regulations imposed by various states and countries,” she says.
Shoreline Destinations’ Norfolk agrees about the role that technology should play in keeping travelers and advisors informed. “The biggest concern we've seen when it comes to booking airfare has been in regard to the cancellation and change policies,” she says. “This is still a fluid situation and airlines are constantly updating their policies. Airlines understand the concerns of travelers and continue to provide flexible and lenient cancel and change policies. Airlines have dedicated website pages to their policies in relation to COVID-19, which allows both consumers and travel advisors to keep up to date on policies. This has allowed us to easily check policies before advising clients on if they will incur change or cancel fees based on their destination.”
Airlines that are able to streamline and simplify the travel experience are especially well positioned in today’s marketplace, Norfolk adds. “We are thrilled with the relationship United Airlines has established with the Hawaiian Islands,” she says. “[Since] February 1, United Airlines customers traveling to Hawaii who have a valid negative COVID-19 test, can show their results before boarding to save time and skip document screening lines upon arrival. We have many clients who have chosen to travel to Hawaii this summer, and this is a prime example of how the airlines are using technology to help passengers spend less time in line upon arrival to their destination.”
Airline Technology and Travel Advisors
As the airline industry rolls out new technological advances, travel advisors are at the forefront of adopting and making use of them. And their experience and knowledge with new airline technology can greatly influence the choices their clients make.
“We are getting more and more travelers coming to us that have never used a travel advisor before,” says Norfolk. “Many travelers are now seeking advice from someone that is up to date on new travel protocols, which includes the airline industry. Before COVID-19, our clients initially came to us for advice on their destination. Now, we are being asked more for recommendations on which airline to use, too.”
“Because airline technology continues to change, we are constantly sharing the latest airline updates with our clients,” she adds. “This helps them become more confident travelers and provides them with a value they can't always get by booking direct.”
Norfolk’s agency uses a variety of methods to educate clients about the latest airline technology and what it’s like to travel today. “Our clients rely on us to advise them as to what each airline is doing to keep them safe, both in the air and prior to departure,” she explains. “As our own advisors have been traveling over the past five months, we have educated our clients through social media on our experiences. We've taken pictures, provided updates throughout our journey, and explained in great detail how our experience was from the moment we arrived at the airport. We have also sent newsletters to our clients throughout COVID-19, explaining what we experienced and what the airlines have done and continue to do to help travelers feel safe.”
It’s that type of first-hand knowledge and professional expertise that has helped to increase the value of a travel advisor’s services, according to Passage. “Travelers affected by the pandemic have since realized how important it is to use a travel agent,” she says. “A lot of agencies have used the downtime to educate themselves in all facets of travel, including selling ancillaries through the reservation system or airlines’ travel agent portals — learning about the new distribution capability, where agencies will have access to full air content through non-standard booking channels for participating airlines and more.”
Indeed, Passage recommends that travel agencies explore how airline technology can strengthen their bottom line. “Agencies are looking for alternative booking avenues in efforts to keep costs down,” she says. “Some agencies are looking at the cost to train a new agent and the time it typically takes on the traditional reservation system vs. allowing them to book on an agency online booking tool, typically for their consumer bookings, where there are no learning codes and formats. More airlines have introduced travel agent portals during the pandemic, where agents can find the most up-to-date information such as policies and ticketing, airfare specials, destination information and COVID testing requirements and much more.”
To ensure that technology continues to develop in a way that truly improves the lives of air travelers, Passage says that advisors should encourage clients to share their experiences directly with the airlines. “Travelers need to get from point A to point B,” she says. “They don’t typically think that their experience could benefit others if they report it, or even realize that it is data that the airline uses to improve processes. The best way to educate [clients about] how important their feedback is to the airline is through verbal communication after their trip or in a ‘welcome home’ email, where you can include the airline contact information for feedback.”
Regardless of what technological marvels the airline industry may unveil next, travel advisors can be assured of a continued central role in making the air travel experience more understandable for the flying public, according to Mojas. “International travel will continue to be stressful, with codeshare airlines or transit airports having different testing requirements in place,” she says. “Travel advisors can play a vital role in ensuring their customers have a smooth journey.”