I spent this week as the guest of the Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI) at their annual conference in Chiang Mai. It has been a traumatic year for the average TAFI agent. Beyond the economic turmoil and concerns over H1N1, India suffered through the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which they refer to as “26/11”. Then, the worst blow of all – airlines informed the agency community that the carriers would no longer pay a 3% commissions on airline tickets, instituting an additional surcharge to consumers booking through agencies. The TAFI agents felt betrayed and kicked into high gear politically to challenge what they refer to as the “Zero Demon”.
My initial reaction was to remark that most US agencies have not seen a commission for many, many years. However, there is a major difference between the TAFI agent of today and US agencies of 10 years ago. The business mix of most TAFI members consists of more than 70% air. For many India agencies, the percentage of business dependent on airline ticketing is north of 90%. Over 85 percent air travelers in India book their tickets through travel agents. The demand for new product like cruises is only now beginning to find a place in an emerging middle class of travelers.
The anguish, the arguments, the anger were all very familiar to me. Deja vu all over again. But the travel agents of India have access to some tactics not available to the travel agents of the United States and Europe. Travel agents in India can jointly refuse to sell a carrier, can organize joint actions and boycotts. That is a difference with teeth. Just as importantly, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation has ruled in favor of the travel agents and appears to be telling the airlines that they MUST pay commissions. Imagine that – a government agency going to bat for travel agents rather than airlines.
So what does any of this have to do with the average US travel agency? Maybe nothing, but I suspect otherwise. While anti-trust laws may make it very difficult for North American travel agencies to band together in a fashion similar to the India model, it is still possible for agencies to be politically active in their own communities, educating the public and their representatives to the important role that travel agents play in the economy and in the lives of clients. While our own organizations like ASTA have to step gingerly around some joint actions, participation by individual agencies with ASTA is still important. Unfortunately, many US agencies have never forgiven the ASTA of nearly fifteen years ago for failing to properly defend the agency community against the airline commission cuts.
Maybe the time has arrived to get over the past.
In a year when ASTA has shown a renewed commitment and vigor to defend the position of the average travel agency in its legislative activity, education initiatives and outreach, it is time for US travel agencies to again consider returning the love. While it has been tempting over the past several years to criticize and ignore ASTA, it is now time to take heed of the renewed efforts of the organization to earn the respect of the agency community.
The challenges to a vital travel US agency community are far from over. Each year brings a new set of obstacles and barriers. There is always the temptation to pay attention only to the world visible at the end of our noses, to work only at our individual business and to leave the larger world to work out as it will. But is insularity really a viable long-term strategy?
ASTA is far from perfect, but its current leadership appears to me to be committed and sincere in its efforts. I think it time to give ASTA another look-see, to consider pooling our resources in the best cooperative effort available to US travel agents.
Here is the web site – http://www.asta.org/. Are those agencies that have walked away from political activity willing to again give ASTA a chance to make it’s case? I would hope so. I would like to think that meeting challenges as a part of a greater whole has more merit than playing the easiest role of all – that of critic.