Airlines Will Rely on Travel Agent Insights to Aid Recovery

Top-level sales executives at Delta and American Airlines spoke candidly with Travel Weekly about airlines’ anticipated reliance on travel agencies for guidance when the time comes to truly revitalize passenger air travel.

“We’ve invested a lot of energy into these partnerships,” said Jim Carter, American’s Eastern Division Vice President for Global Sales. “It’s these kinds of times when you get to test these partnerships. It’s natural now that we lean on them. The conversations we are having with them are more critical, to make sure we’re listening to where their clients are thinking about traveling.”

Bob Somers, Delta’s Senior Vice President of Global Sales, had thoughts along similar lines. He said, “Having good visibility on what customers want from us, where they are going to travel, when they are ready to travel, those are questions that are being looked at now.”

Within agency channels, in particular, airline tickets sales have lately seen some modest improvement, though those numbers remain at lows that would’ve been unfathomable pre-pandemic.

According to the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), sales transactions were down by almost 89 percent and, by volume, had plummeted nearly 94 percent for the week that ended on May 10, 2020. Dismal though these figures may initially appear, they actually demonstrate a slight uptick in demand relative to the month of April and the start of May.

At this point, all predictions are forecasting a slow recovery for the passenger air travel industry. A recent Harris survey (conducted May 1 through May 3) found that almost half of Americans won’t feel comfortable taking to the skies again until the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

Peter Vlitas, Travel Leaders’ Senior Vice President of Airlines told Travel Weekly that airlines are aware that there are key insights that will be uniquely available from travel agencies during the restart period, as they seek to gauge consumer sentiment and rebuild their schedules, which have been reduced during the crisis by as much as 90 percent.

Vlitas foresees that travel advisors will observe notable increases in their share of airline ticket sales with consumer confidence being at an all-time low and travelers feeling the need for more insider assistance.

“The airlines are realizing that we’re going to have a bigger role, and they want to have a conversation with us about when we think the customers are going to want to travel and where we think they want to travel,” Vlitas said.

Carter and Somers both said that leisure travel advisors aren’t the only partners they’d be looking to for insight on areas where demand is returning. Carter revealed that American Airlines is also counting on the corporate agency community and its partners in such corporate verticals as technology, entertainment and pharmaceuticals.

While airlines also have their own internal data sources to mine, including flight searches and current bookings, Somers said agents will play a crucial role in guiding the trajectory of air travel recovery. He disclosed that Delta’s sales team follows a mantra of “listen, act, listen” in working with its partners. “It’s especially critical when you have times of rapid change,” he said.

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