IATA to require competency tests for ID cards

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Questions: Are you a pro or just savvy?

The following are examples of the kinds of questions agents will see in the planned IATA tests for ID card applicants. These three questions will not actually be used in the real pool of questions.

How could you best avoid the problem of a tour company bankruptcy and lost deposits?

a. Sell travel packages only of tour operators that belong to associations with consumer protection plans

b. Require your clients to purchase cancellation insurance

c. Write stringent contracts that heavily penalize tour companies that go bankrupt

d. Contract only with local tour operators

To check procedures and regulations governing the sale of air transportation, travel counselors refer to the

a. IATA Policy Manual

b. Travel Planner

c. OAG

d. ARC Industry Agents Handbook

The distance by road from Paris, France, to Nice, France, is approximately 800 kilometers. Approximately how many miles is this?

a. 250

b. 500

c. 750

d. 875

Answers:1. a; 2. d; 3. b

IATA will for the first time require travel agents to pass competency tests before qualifying for an IATA identification card.

The qualifying tests, which are part of an overhaul of IATAs agency ID programs worldwide, will be launched in the U.S. -- the largest market for the cards -- starting as early as September.

Fees for the cards will remain $30 for one year or $50 for two years, but cardholders will be retested at each required annual renewal.

The Travel Institute is writing the tests for U.S. agents, with questions designed to separate professional sellers of travel from hobbyists, said Travel Institute Chairman Scott Ahlsmith.

He said IATA and the institute both want to support legitimate professional travel sellers, no matter how narrowly focused their business niches.

On the other hand, Ahlsmith said that even a top specialist in a particular field also needs a general working knowledge of the industry.

Therefore, the multiple-choice tests, to be taken online, while not meant to be tricky are not meant to be easy, Ahlsmith said. It would be OK if 20% of legitimate agents had to retake the test [after their first try]. The agents could be legitimate but not that well rounded.

The questions, he said, will touch on industry segments (accommodations, air, cruise, ground transportation and tours), geography, international travel, professional development, sales and service, and operations and technology. (See sample questions above right).

Although IATA is an airline trade association, Ahlsmith said that the tests would not place extra emphasis on the airline segment.  For example, he said, questions wont go into airline tariffs, but they will deal with aviation to the extent that the institute feels a cruise-only agent must understand airline matters in order to serve cruisers.

The tests will have 25 to 35 questions   -- the exact number yet to be determined. For each test-taker, items will be drawn randomly by computer from a larger pool of questions. Each test will be different from most or all others, and agents wouldnt be able to help others too much by copying questions to share.

The pool of questions will be updated regularly, partly to keep up with events.

Random sorting and regular updates also mean a test-taker wont be looking at the same questions year after year.

IATA and institute officials said they expect some agents to object to testing or to IATAs role in a program designed to meet industry needs rather than merely those of international air carriers.

Former ASTA president Phil Davidoff objected on both counts. If proven tested knowledge is what they really want, they should accept tests already taken, such as the CTC designation, he said.

Davidoff said he was not convinced of the value of annual tests. Has the successful test-taker suddenly developed amnesia or has the travel world changed that much in a year? he wondered.

He also asked how testing would differentiate an agent from a savvy frequent traveler -- especially the professional speakers, salespeople and others who buy cards from card mills to get discounts on hotels and car rentals.

Humberto Rivero, IATAs regional director for the Americas, said tests are not intended to keep agents out, but to ensure each applicant has the knowledge base to function as an agent.

Ahlsmith said that no one would be forcing agents to take tests or to get the card.

The pressure is on IATA to develop enough benefits so agents will want it, he said, terming the requirements not unreasonable for a voluntary program.

As for weeding out the merely savvy traveler, Ahlsmith said the institute had tested an early set of questions with hobbyists, and they were answering 70% to 80% of questions correctly. As a result, he said, the questions have been fine tuned because we need a 100% failure among the public. (Even a savvy frequent traveler would have to satisfy other IATA requirements such as minimum annual income from selling travel.)

Davidoff questioned the propriety of IATA quizzing agents on anything other than international air.

An IATA spokeswoman said the organization had already expanded beyond air travel, referring to the travel services intermediary (TSI) designation it offers in the U.S. to agents who do not sell air and the comparable travel industry designator service (TIDS) designation offered elsewhere.

Air is in the name, the spokeswoman said, but it is not all we do.

Marriott, which is helping to test the new ID cards technology, has worked harder than most suppliers at identifying legitimate travel agents and weeding out the amateurs. Fred Miller, vice president of global sales at Marriott, focuses on the common goal shared by IATA and the hotel company.

He said the revamped ID program looks promising because not just anyone can get this card. IATA seems to have the most realistic criteria for designating sellers of travel. If the program does what we hope for, it should be the standard for industry credentials.

IATAs Rivero emphasized the value of a global option.

With a card that looks the same in all countries, he said, it is more likely to be recognized and accepted by suppliers of all types worldwide.

The global design would make it easier for suppliers to separate professionals from nonprofessionals, Rivero said, and would provide better recognition for agents anywhere in the world.

Rivero added that ID programs will grow in importance overseas as the home-agent trend catches on outside of North America.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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