Airport authority irks Chattanooga agents

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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Travel agents here are riled up because their local airport authority tapped a competitor, Apollo Travel, to create a fare-quote service called FareLine, for which Apollo is being paid $30,000 over a 12-month period.

The authority's goal is collecting data on fare disparities between Chattanooga and the closest big airports (Atlanta and Nashville), but the travel agency also can book travel for callers and build its database.

A monthlong newspaper ad campaign paid for by the authority directed readers to FareLine.

Chattanooga agents don't fault Apollo owner Jimmy Campbell for being aggressive and "smart," as one said, but they believe the authority made a big mistake in not putting the project out to bid. They say the promotion of one agency over all others is unfair.

Spearheading a drive

Carol Young, president and owner of All Seasons Travel (which is located in the airport), is spearheading a drive to get the FareLine contract rescinded. She and about six other agencies, representing an estimated 80% of the agency business in Chattanooga, she said, will make their case at the authority's Jan. 20 board meeting.

FareLine is part of a marketing program devised by the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority to counteract a major loss of travelers to more-distant airports where fares are lower. A study revealed that only 45% of area travelers fly out on one of Chattanooga's 27 daily flights, the authority says.

Apollo Travel is expected to catalog significant fare disparities, which the authority will use to lobby lines serving Chattanooga to cut their fares.

Young said the goal is to get the rates to within $100 of out-of-town opportunities on 14-day advance-purchase deals and within $200 on seven-day advance-purchase fares.

100 calls a week

FareLine was launched in mid-October. Campbell said his $2 million agency gets about 100 calls a week on the special line created for the project. Fewer than 10% book air, but the "vast majority" of those customers use the Chattanooga airport, Campbell said. The agency charges a $10 fee on air sales, and some callers also book nonair components.

He said almost none of the callers is a travel agent user. Many are calling to confirm their understanding of what they've seen on the Internet, and "we find [they have] quite a bit of misinformation," he said.

The airport authority's Web site offers access to Apollo's 10-month-old Web site at www.flychattanooga.com.

This link is not part of the research project, according to Judy Graham-Weaver, vice president of marketing for the airport authority. She said Apollo is the only local agency with a Web-based booking product, to her knowledge, and the authority would provide links to other agencies' sites if they existed.

Young's complaints center on the current airport authority administration, in place more than two years. The previous administration "was in constant contact with agents, [while] we've always supported" the airport. Current administrators "never asked me what I could do," and this smacks of a "good ole boy" arrangement, she said.

Young noted she had to bid to get her single-office agency in the airport. "We've been here 17 years, and we took referral calls [from the airport] for 16 years," she said. She finally asked the airport to refer callers to the airlines instead because the financial returns were not worth it.

Catch-22

This sounds like Catch-22: Graham-Weaver said one reason the airport authority chose to retain a travel agent for its research was to provide a place to refer people who call the airport to inquire about fares and to book travel, now that All Seasons no longer takes the calls.

The bottom line, Young said, is that the authority is "alienating the largest sales force it has. You can bet this does not make me loyal."

All Seasons Travel and another local protester, Tennessee Valley Travel, are ARTA members. ARTA president John Hawks, who will participate in the airport authority's Jan. 20 board meeting, said the group is counseling members to seek more modest goals because it seems unlikely the group can force the cancellation of the contract.

Those goals include eliminating Apollo's option to sell to FareLine callers and ensuring the contract goes out for bid if it is renewed.

You can reach the journalist who wrote this article at [email protected].

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