This summer has been brutal for airlines as ongoing industry shortages and air traffic control problems have resulted in a massive number of flight cancellations. Around 15 percent of planned U.S. summer flights from June to August were scrapped from flight schedules, while the strike by German ground staff forced Lufthansa to cancel more than 1,000 flights scheduled to depart on July 27.
This chaos has also made work difficult for travel agents. Agents, already struggling to cope with the surge in travelers seeking travel planning advice, are increasingly overwhelmed with flight disruption matters.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Dannielle Jasper, an agent who has worked for Cincinnati, Ohio-based agency Prestige Travel for 25 years.
“We’re usually used to appointment changes and cancellations in the summer, but not like this.”
So what was a day like for travel agents in the summer of hell? Jasper describes a hectic day at the office.
8 a.m. to 10 a.m
A day in the office begins quietly as Jasper checks queues in the company’s global distribution system for schedule changes. She could see up to 24 changes per morning, but if the changes are to a booking she’s made, she can edit each one in two minutes.
But the chaos begins as soon as she turns on her phone.
“We have half a dozen calls first thing every morning. ‘My flight was cancelled, I’m stuck here,'” Jasper said. “We care a lot more about this booking.”
Jasper said agents can handle flight changes 80 to 90 percent of the time in the company’s global distribution system. However, she admits that Prestige Travel sometimes encounters glitches in the system.
“And then we have to contact the airlines, which is a disaster,” Jasper said.
Why was it a disaster? Jasper cites the shortage of staff in the airline industry. Although she has special phone numbers that might be expedited by major airlines, she describes an all too common scenario for agents at Prestige Travel.
“Usually we call an entry consultant who tries to call any airline, and when they get through, they let everyone in the office know, ‘I’ve got airline XYZ on the phone,'” Jasper said.
“And we just pass it on. But it could take hours (to speak to an airline representative).”
Jasper admits that constantly talking to airline representatives on the phone is time-consuming and exhausting.
“We have at least one person, if not several, on the phone trying to reach airlines. And we have extra calls that we need to take. So it spreads our staff thinly,” he said.
10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m
Jasper continues with the morning’s agenda before turning to other priorities, such as: B. to start new bookings or to close existing ones. Agents call travel suppliers — like cruise lines and tour operators — to get the ball rolling.
But here, too, it takes a long time for an employee to answer the phone – between 30 minutes and 5 hours. This rep doesn’t know how to make changes in the company’s global distribution system, so he has to put the consultant on hold to ask a manager.
“(We’re) separated a lot and[have to]start the process all over again,” Jasper said. This process regularly takes more than two hours.
12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m
Jasper finally has time to step a few steps away from her computer for lunch.
1:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m
Jasper then takes calls or answers inquiries from travelers interested in hiring an agent’s services. She has 20 such interactions a day and admits that she doesn’t have the time to help all potential clients.
“(So) we need to screen prospects to make sure they’re serious about booking,” she said.
Jasper then needs to refocus on calls from more customers whose flights are canceled or delayed. She does what she can in the company’s global distribution system and expresses her gratitude for the two-minute transactions. But if she can’t make any changes in the system, she has to make a cumbersome attempt to reach a provider by phone.
4 p.m. to 8 p.m
Jasper steps away from the computer for a short break. A normal day would slowly end at this point, as Prestige Travel generally advises its agents not to work past 5pm. But work doesn’t slow down as Jasper has the next steps to take care of, which usually involves flight cancellations.
“Unfortunately, with flight cancellations and changes, you can’t usually postpone it to the next day. You have to take that into account (immediately),” she said.
Jasper stays in the office longer than she would like because she admits that Prestige Travel is understaffed. “It’s very difficult to find experienced (global distribution system) trained agents,” she said.
The lack of agents trained in global distribution systems is significant, as everything Prestige Travel does in relation to airlines and rentals is done exclusively with such systems, explains Jasper.
“If (we) have 15 employees and five are not trained in global distribution systems, then (we only have) 10 employees to serve airline customers,” she said.
Jasper believes there is no problem reaching out to clients once she has the necessary information. “(But) it takes time to do the work (and) make the change,” she said.
Jasper finally finishes work, although flights continue to be cancelled. But who helps her customers when she’s not in the office?
Prestige Travel uses Travel Leaders 24, an answering service and after-hours service for travel agents. It has access to the agency’s global distribution system and handles inquiries from consumers. Jasper estimates that Prestige Travel receives up to 15 calls a night after hours.
Though she’s relieved to go home, she knows more chaos awaits her the next day.
“It’s crazy,” she said of a summer day at the office.