Airlines say travel agencies key to return to the skies

Sales leaders at American and Delta say that their
partnerships with travel agencies will be key when travel ramps up
again.

“We’ve invested a lot of energy into these partnerships,”
said Jim Carter, American’s Eastern Division vice president for global sales. “It’s
these kinds of times when you get to test these partnerships. It’s natural now
that we lean on them. The conversations we are having with them are more
critical, to make sure we’re listening to where their clients are thinking
about traveling.”

Bob Somers, Delta’s senior vice president of global sales,
offered a similar message. 

“Having good visibility on what customers want from us,
where they are going to travel, when they are ready to travel, those are
questions that are being looked at now,” he said. 

Airline ticket sales within the agency channel have begun a
very modest tick back up, though they remain at depths that would have been
unimaginable just a few months ago.

Airline ticket sales within the agency channel were down
88.6% in terms of transactions and 93.5% by volume for the week that ended May
10, according to ARC. Though such figures would have been unimaginable just a
few months ago, they represented a slight improvement over April and the start
of May.

The recovery is likely to be slow. A Harris survey of 2,039
adults conducted May 1 to 3 found that 48% of Americans said they wouldn’t be
comfortable flying until the Covid-19 pandemic is over. But as a critical mass
of people do return to the skies, airlines will have the unprecedented task of
rebuilding schedules that have been reduced by as much as 90%.

Peter Vlitas, senior vice president of airlines for Travel
Leaders, said that airlines understand that as they set about rebuilding
schedules, travel agencies can provide key insights. Vlitas also said he
believes travel advisors will see their share of airline ticket sales increase
during the restart period, largely because flyers will have more doubts and
need more assistance than they do during normal times. 

“The airlines are realizing that we’re going to have a
bigger role, and they want to have a conversation with us about when we think
the customers are going to want to travel and where we think they want to
travel,” Vlitas said. 

Both Carter and Somers said that leisure travel agents weren’t
the only partners they were leaning on. American, said Carter, is looking to
the corporate agency community as well as to partners in corporate verticals
such as technology, entertainment and pharmaceuticals to get insights on where
demand is returning. 

Airlines are also mining internal data sources, including
bookings and flight searches. Still, Somers said leisure agents will play a
crucial role as travel recovers. The Delta sales team, he said, follows a
mantra with partners of, “listen, act, listen.”

“It’s especially critical when you have times of rapid
change,” he said.

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