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A Case for Desi Travel Agents

A Case for Desi Travel Agents
August 05
12:42 2021

A.Q. Siddiqui

A viral WhatsApp message from Arvind Nayak of Mumbai tells us a story how the gullible customers fall prey to online travel agencies (OTA). In his warning message, Arvind Nayak said he bought Kuwait Airways ticket from a very famous and pioneer Indian online travel website for his business trip to Milan from Mumbai. The trip was scheduled for October 2020. However, due to pandemic, Arvind cancelled his trip from OTA website and requested for refund in August 2020. From there on, he had an experience that he considers worth sharing with WhatsApp users.

The online travel agency never responded. When Arvind called Kuwait Airways, he was informed that airlines has already credited refund amount to travel agency account after deducting a nominal fee. The online travel agency never responded to Arvind’s phone calls or emails. Arvind however, got his hard-earned money back in July 2021 after he approached the Prime Minister’s Office in India.

What happened to Arvind Nayak in India also happened to hundreds of travelers in US recently who purchased airline tickets and hotel bookings on OTA web portals. As pandemic caused flight cancelations, they turned to online portals for refund or rebooking and majority of them suffered the same fate as Arvind Nayak described. While many never got any response, few realized in course of time that OTA is no more in business. In fact, few OTA changed their web portal names and returned back in business. Last few years have seen a liking for OTA among Americans desi community. Mostly young generation Desi Americans are smitten with online booking craze as they find it handy.

For them a price tag on Google or scanner is more authentic than a travel agency fare-quote. And here is the reality. A price quote on a scanner or Google search is only the lowest fare that may or may not be available for sale. Whereas a travel agent will look for actual availability and fare in booking system. But travel agents are mostly blamed or suspected for quoting higher fare. The airlines distribute equal fares to online travel portals and traditional travel agencies. However, often travelers find cheaper fare on online portals? How it happens so when airline fares are equally distributed.

A well-known travel agent in Chicago, who is in business for over 22 years and is very popular among India and Pakistan travelers, shared with us the other side of this story. For trade and obvious reasons, the identity of the travel agent is not revealed here and nicknamed as TA.

TA informed this reporter that since March 2020 all travel agencies have suffered heavy losses, some even closed their offices. The TA office has relentlessly worked getting all their customers tickets either refunded or re booked for future travel. While the refund or rebooking task will not incur any profit or income for the TA, they did it as service to the clients. When an airline ticket is refunded, airline will recall the commission given at the time of ticketing. Some taxes are not refundable. The GDS booking system will also recall segment sale count for refunded tickets raising monthly GDS cost for the TA. On an average $25 to $50 is lost in each refund transaction.

The TA said, “When we charge $25 fee for refund for actual procedural loss, the customers suspect we are pocketing this amount. Many argue with us why not full refund when the flight is cancelled. In contrast, OTA portals charge $75 or more for refunding a ticket against the actual fee of $25.” The TA also informed that, “It is a myth that online fares are cheaper. But at times, many unauthorized websites sell ‘net to net’ fares on their portal for attracting traffic on their website. These OTAs are not approved by ARC (Airlines reporting corporation of America) or IATAN (International Air Travel Association of North America). These websites have nothing to lose. They do not hire manpower like us, nor they pay office rents, utilities etc as we do.     The operating expenses are none or minimum for most OTAs. So many of these OTAs will sell a given fare of $950 to Hyderabad as $950 only, against our quote of $955 or $965 for the same. Airlines are very callous for travel agencies in recent times. Most airlines have Zero commission policy for travel agencies.

We charge $5 or $10 for our own survival but in return for this $5 or $10 service charge we offer professional services, relevant information and help for rebooking or refunding. But for many customers this $5 or $10 difference from OTAs pricing is a huge difference. Without making any profit since March 2020 we are attending to our work and helping our customers. We follow up with airlines for refund and rebooking. Many airlines have long ques for refunds, but we continue our follow up. Air India delayed refunds but customers blamed us for delaying their refunds.”

The TA added, “However, our pride is our regular customers who do not suspect our integrity and take our quotes as given. They actually care for Desi business. And few of them even check online portals for fares and airlines availability but book the same with us.”

This reporter is not taking sides with OTAs or traditional travel agencies but feels it fair to suggest – if you check your trip plan online and book the same with your community travel agent it will have 2-way benefits. You will be giving a business to a person you know and if a situation arises, you can easily reach him by text or email, from anywhere, rather than to an unknown online web portal or even to airline’s own customer support.

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