The state
of booking air

A Travel Weekly poll indicates that selling air travel has become more onerous than ever for agencies and advisors.

Illustration by Jenn Martins

Illustration by Jenn Martins

Ever since airlines halted base commissions more than two decades ago, booking air has been more chore than opportunity for many of the leisure travel agencies that continue to offer the service.

But in recent years, increasingly differentiated airline distribution strategies, coupled with the servicing challenges that began with the Covid-19 pandemic and have continued during the recovery, have added even more hurdles.

“No amount of commission is worth the potential hassle when it comes to air bookings,” wrote one respondent to a survey of travel advisors about air sales conducted by Travel Weekly last month. 

Among respondents, 77.5% said they or their agency book air, while 22.5% said they steer clear of air bookings. (The survey’s sole emphasis on selling air might have boosted the yes answers since participants were self-selecting. In a survey of members conducted by ASTA earlier this spring, 66% of respondents said they book air.) 

The survey was conducted on the heels of the latest major change in the air booking landscape for U.S. travel agents: American Airlines’ pulling approximately 40% of its fares from traditional GDS channels as of early April, making it bookable only via NDC-enabled connections. Many travel advisors who book American, including some who have NDC connections, continue to report challenges in accessing that NDC content. And limitations in the servicing capabilities for NDC bookings made via a GDS have left some agents unwilling to book NDC-supported fares in any case. 

But the survey also endeavored to shed light on how the agency community is responding to a variety of changes related to air bookings in recent years. 

American is just one of numerous global carriers adopting NDC, and in so doing complicating the traditional workflow of GDS-focused travel agencies. Others, such as Hawaiian, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Air France-KLM and British Airways parent IAG, have added GDS surcharges in recent years for non-NDC bookings. Hawaiian also stopped offering interisland flights through legacy GDS technology. United, similar in some ways to American, began selling NDC-only fares in GDSs. And the list goes on. 

Airlines’ broad adoption of an ever-growing milieu of ancillary products, notably including paid seat selection and bag fees, have also muddled the booking process. 

In the meantime, the calamity of flight cancellations and schedule changes that drowned travel advisors in refund requests during the first stages of the pandemic only now appears to be drawing to a close. Last year’s rapid surge of air travel demand led airlines to overschedule, even as they were hampered by shortages of pilots and other staff and at the same time being impacted by labor shortfalls at airports and within air traffic controller ranks. As a result, travel advisors who book airfare, still weary from the mass of unpaid work they put in chasing those early pandemic refunds, were once again put to the test dealing with abnormally high volumes of flight changes and cancellations while undertaking other servicing functions. 

With these dynamics in mind, our survey of more than 550 travel advisors sought to ferret out the current approaches and attitudes of the agency community when it comes to booking air travel — or in many cases, not booking it at all. The survey was fielded online from May 15 to 22.

Do you or your agency book air? Yes: 22.5%. No: 77.5%.
If your agency doesn’t book air, why not? Lack of compensation: 89.2%. Don’t want to be held responsible by the client for delays or cancellations: 83.3%. Don’t want to handle cancellation or rebooking requests: 72.5%. Lack of supplier support: 57.5%. Takes too much time to book: 57.5%. Takes too much time to book: 46.7%. Afraid of errors or debit memos: 42.5%. Other: 32.%. None of the above: 0.8%.

Agencies that book air

Even among the more than three-quarters of respondents who do book air, many noted in comments that they only do so as part of a broader service package, or that they’ll handle airline tickets and servicing only for select clients. 

“I only book air for established clients and only when it is part of a package. I do not book just air,” noted one such respondent.

Even some companies that have long booked airfare as a primary source of income have begun reconsidering that strategy.

“Have done air continuously for 44 years in business and never walked away from it,” wrote Gene Haemmerle, owner of Travel Creations in Naples, Fla. “NDC with point-and-click will take me five times the length of time to complete a reservation.” Haemmerle said that in cryptic GDS format, he can type 50 words per minute. 

Matthew DeGuire, co-owner of Travel Unlimited in Columbia, S.C., part of the Travel Leaders network, said that air travel bookings comprise 60% to 65% of his company’s income, mostly in the form of service fees and commissions. But American’s NDC push has caused major disruption. A Travelport GDS user, DeGuire said searches often fail to show NDC fares even when they exist. So he has to check the American website for cheaper fares, then go back to the GDS to hunt down that NDC-supported content. Then comes the frustrating task of settling and servicing that booking. 

“To get a ticket that is booked by NDC in our back-office system, you know, take the afternoon off,” DeGuire said. 

He added that in 33 years of booking air travel, he’s never considered giving up, even when airlines eliminated base commissions. That is, until now. 

“It really makes me want to step back and think, how much trouble are we willing to go through for a small service fee,” DeGuire said. “Maybe we need to rethink our business model focus on air.”

Not everyone is as frustrated. Lynn Clark, owner of Milwaukee-based Journeys Travel Group, also in the Travel Leaders network, said her agency has seen an increase in air-only bookings since the start of the pandemic. She’s happy to take such clients, charging fees of $30 to $35 for domestic flights and $80 to $100 for international.

Journeys Travel’s task is easier than some agencies’ because their Milwaukee location makes Delta, which has not adopted NDC, the preferred airline. 

“It appears there are very few agencies that will book ‘air-only,’ as [clients] are fairly desperate when they get to us,” Clark wrote. “We have charged booking management fees for decades and feel it is a service to ‘new-to-us’ clients that could result in larger future bookings.”

If you do book air, how are you compensated? Agency-imposed service/booking fee: 72.7%. Commission from a consolidator: 43%. Commission from an airline: 33.7%. GDS segment fees: 15.4%. We don’t make money from air bookings: 15.4%. Overrides: 13.2%. Other: 13.4%.
Does your agency have a contract  with an airline for commission? Yes: 33.3%. No: 57.8%. Maybe: 9%.

Compensated how?

Among the survey respondents who book air, 72.7% said they charge a service or booking fee. More than 43% of respondents said they receive commission from a consolidator, while 33.7% said they receive commissions from airlines. GDS segment fees and overrides are revenue sources for 15.4% and 13.2% of respondents, respectively. A significant percentage of respondents, 15.4%, said they don’t make money at all from air bookings. 

Among the respondents who have commission contracts with airlines, 70% have a contract with Delta, 62.3% have one with United, 53.9% have a contract with American and 25.4% have one with Alaska. The survey was fielded during the same week that American emailed form letters to some agencies informing them that commission contracts won’t be renewed when they expire at the end of this month.

In addition, 38.9% of respondents said they have commission contracts with other, primarily international, airlines. 

Nearly half of respondents who book airline tickets said they use a GDS, with Sabre (49.5%) topping Travelport (34.8%) and Amadeus (20.1%) as the most commonly used system. Only 20.7% of respondents who use a GDS said it is the only way they book. Among the most common other methods, 45.7% said they also book direct through an airline website or app; 43.5% said they book through suppliers, including cruise lines and tour operators; and 39.7% said they use consolidators or wholesalers. 

For the survey participants who book air but not via a GDS, 66.8% use a consolidator or wholesaler, 64.8% use a supplier and 60.7% use an airline app or website. Significant numbers of agents also said they use another booking system such as Revelex or Vax VacationAccess (38.8%), an airline’s agent portal (15.3%), a proprietary agency system (14.3%) or via calling the airline (11.7%).

Do you book air tickets  through a GDS? Yes: 48%. No: 52%.
In addition to the GDS, do you use another method to book air? Airline website or app: 45.7%. Through a supplier (cruise line, tour operator, etc.): 43.5%. Consolidator/wholesaler: 39.7%. We only use a GDS to book air: 20.7%. Other system (Revelex, Vax VacationAccess, other): 19%. Airline agent portal: 17.4%. Calling the airline’s reservation center: 12%. NDC aggregator: 6%. Proprietary agency system: 4.9%. Direct connect: 4.4%. Other: 3.3%.

No pay, no play

Among the survey respondents who said they or their agency does not book air, a robust 89.2% cited lack of compensation as a reason. 

More than 83% said they don’t want to be held responsible by clients for airline delays or cancellations. 

“The airlines have been too unpredictable, and I do not want to take any risks,” wrote Cynthia Ryan of the Maryland-based Seas the Day travel agency. 

Many respondents also said they don’t want to handle cancellation or booking requests (72.5%), that airlines don’t provide enough support (57.5%), that booking flights takes too much time (46.7%) and that they are afraid of errors or receiving debit memos (42.5%). 

“I used to book air, but no more. Airlines make it much too difficult for us as agents, so just not worth it to me anymore,” one respondent wrote. 

Of the survey participants who don’t book air, the large majority, or 86.3%, said they instead advise clients to book directly with the airline. In comments, several respondents also said they encourage clients to book through their cruise line or tour operator. Just under 10% of respondents said they’ll refer clients to an agency that handles air bookings.

Is your agency NDC enabled? Yes: 22.9%. No: 32.2%. I don't know: 45%.
Is the increasing usage of NDC impacting your business? Yes: 21.2%. No: 31.4%. I don't know: 47.5%.

The impact of NDC

Nearly half of the Travel Weekly survey respondents said they aren’t familiar with NDC, while 19.5% said they are familiar with the distribution technology and 30.6% said they are somewhat familiar with it. 

Among agents who book air, 56.3% said that they are either familiar or somewhat familiar with NDC. 

Those responses suggest that awareness of NDC has grown significantly over the past several months, likely fueled by the controversy surrounding American’s NDC push. In the 2022 Travel Industry Survey of advisors, conducted for Travel Weekly last summer by Northstar sister company Phocuswright, 76% of respondents said they were not familiar with NDC. 

In last month’s survey, 32.2% of respondents said their agency is not NDC-enabled, while 22.9% said their agency has enabled the technology. The remainder weren’t sure. 

Similarly, nearly half of respondents (47.5%) said they don’t know whether the increasing usage of NDC by American, United and other airlines is impacting their business and workflow, while 31.4% said it isn’t impacting them and 21.2% said they are impacted. 

However, among those who did say they are being affected, sentiment is overwhelmingly gloomy. Nearly 90% said the impact is either negative (52%) or very negative (37.7%). 

Airlines tout NDC technology for its capability to support a wider array of ancillary products, product bundles and fares than legacy GDS technology, but just 3.9% of the travel advisors who responded to the question said the technology’s spread is having a positive or very positive impact upon them. 

“NDC is not ready for the big time,” wrote one survey respondent. “We need back-office accounting, refund and exchange capability; full information on fares booked for commission purposes; and a clean interface that allows us to make fair comparisons and fully understand what, exactly, is being sold.”

South Carolina-based DeGuire offered a similar perspective. 

“In a region where AA is predominant, NDC and the GDS inefficiencies regarding NDC pose enormous customer issues,” he said.