As we celebrate our nation’s day of independence from Great Britain, it seems that the travel agency industry is also preparing (or should be preparing) to celebrate their independence. Independence from what you might ask. Well, if you have read some of my past columns, I firmly believe that we are undergoing a huge renaissance in the travel industry. We are no longer “agents” of anyone. We are swiftly moving to an era of independence.
Just as our nation’s forefathers were at a crossroads 233 years ago; today we find our industry at some serious crossroads as well. As I discussed last week, the recent move by United Airlines to force the merchant fees on travel agents whom they are already not paying, is a definitive shot across the bow and should be taken as a stern warning to all agencies.
While ARTA has been silent on this issue, ASTA has taken a very aggressive stance. The Department of Justice has been put on notice in case other carriers follow the “leader” and there has been very strong language lobbed from Alexandria to Chicago and Washington, DC. ASTA is not planning on rolling over on this latest affront.
But will it be enough? You need to be involved; and please none of the “I don’t sell air anymore” rhetoric! If you sell travel, any type of travel, you need to be very concerned. If this practice is not stopped right now, are you prepared to accept it for cruises and tours? The last time I looked, most cruise prices were significantly higher than most airline tickets. Can your agency absorb 3% or 4% of the total sale of a world cruise? Mine can’t!
ASTA’s President and Chairman, Chris Russo has called for a grass roots lobbying effort to stop United in their tracks. He and ASTA are encouraging all travel agencies—not just ASTA members to contact United and voice their opinion on this absurd policy. Additionally, you are encouraged to contact your congressional representatives and explain how this new burden will affect your business.
This industry has been a patsy for too long. When commissions were reduced, we laid back and took it. When they were eliminated, we accepted it and moved forward. When the NCFs began to creep up on the cruise lines, we went on—business as usual. Where does it stop? Where do you draw the line? Do you even have a pencil? The airlines in particular have demonstrated their ruthlessness, greed, and ineptness. Are you willing to allow them to put you out of business? I’m not!
My letters have been written and mailed. I came into this industry in the midst of the commission reductions. People said I was nuts. But you know what? I believed in the industry back then, and I still do today.
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!
Below are samples of letters you can send to Unites and to your congressional representatives. Please do not copy them verbatim—make them personal and try to hit your representative where it hurts—in his constituency..
Sample letter or email to United:
“My travel agency has been selling United tickets for __ years as your agent. I am writing to tell you that I am extremely disturbed about the new policy of denying agents the use of United merchant accounts to sell your tickets. There has been no meaningful explanation given as to why United is doing this, and what plans United may have to extend these conditions to my business. This policy is bad for my business and bad for consumers. I urge you to rethink this change immediately and rescind the plan to implement on July 20. The entire agency community is watching. It is unreasonable, unbusinesslike and unacceptable for United to force its costs onto travel agencies in the hope that we will do the dirty work for you by passing the costs on to our customers.
Sample letter or email to Representative or Senator:
“Dear Representative/Senator ______:
I own/manage a travel agency in _________, _____ and I need your help. We have been in business for ___ years, employing __ full time agents and contributing to tourism sales and the local economy. When we sell an airline ticket with payment by credit card (accounting for over 90% of sales), the merchant account for that credit transaction is owned by the airline. Among the many advantages of this system, in place since the advent of credit cards, is that consumers get the full protections of the Fair Credit Billing Act in case of performance disputes, including airline bankruptcies.
United Airlines has just announced that, as of July 20, we will be denied access to United merchant accounts and must get our own accounts and pay United in cash. This policy will impose enormous costs and risks on our business and will defeat the protections that consumers get under federal law. If an airline service dispute arises, and they come up all the time, our agency will be the target for charge-backs even though United has the money. This is an impossible situation, unfair to us, unreasonable as a business practice and severely harmful to consumers.
We ask that you use your influence to persuade United to rescind this policy immediately before catastrophic consequences ensue. If your office needs further information, please contact, Paul Ruden of ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) at 703-739-6854. Thank you very much for considering our views.