Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020

Resources help advisors navigate changing airline policies

A look at United’s Covid-19 waiver policy as of the fourth week of April could have been enough to induce brain cramp, even for the most veteran of travel advisors.

The policy was split in four, with different rules applying based upon when a ticket was booked, how quickly a customer rebooked and when an individual was scheduled to fly.

For example, the waiver on tickets purchased before March 3 applied for original travel dates through May 31, and rebooked travel had to commence within 24 months of the original purchase date. But if a customer rebooked before April 30, the waiver applied for original travel dates through the end of the year.

Meanwhile, for tickets booked from March 3 to March 31, United was waiving change fees no matter when travel was scheduled for, with rebookings allowed for travel 24 months from original purchase. But if the ticket was purchased this month, rebookings had to be made within 12 months of the original travel date.

Confused yet?

Well, this isn’t just a United issue.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, airlines in the U.S. and around the world have repeatedly revised their policies on exchanges, refunds, travel credits, ticket validations, ticket expiration dates and more. In fact, as of April 16, Travel Leaders had sent its advisors 512 airline policy updates related to the Covid-19 crisis, said Peter Vlitas, the consortium’s senior vice president of airlines.

For agent Loraine Gardner of Beyond the Horizon Travel Corp. in New York, making all those changes manageable means focusing on the specifics only when they apply to tickets she is actually working with.

“I see those airline policy changes, but I don’t try to study each nuance,” she said. “Why try to dissect a policy issued on March 25 when on April 5 it is going to change?”

Gardner, like so many other travel advisors, is spending most of her working hours these days dealing with refunds.

But even though airlines in the U.S. market were forced by an April 3 DOT order to become more consistent in their refund policies, there are still policy variations, including a shifting landscape of carriers that aren’t currently processing refunds through the GDSs.

With so much complexity, where can travel advisors go for clarity?

One solution is ARC’s Airline Refund and Exchange Information website, which provides sortable information on the refund processing policies of all 235 of its member airlines and also offers a search field that enables agents to see which carriers have extended ticket validity beyond the usual 13 months.

But despite developing this resource in recent weeks, Chuck Fischer, ARC’s vice president of airline retailing and settlement, said it’s still important to double-check policies with the airline, especially with the changes that are coming so frequently.

To that effect, the webpage offers links to all of ARC’s airline websites, while ARC’s separate Participating Airlines page links users to the agent portals of carriers.

Others are also working to facilitate travel advisors’ access to information. Within the Travel Leaders umbrella, agents for Tzell, Altour and Protravel International are able to sit in on a weekly video conference with American, Delta and United, Vlitas said. On the Travel Leaders Network side of the organization, similar conferences are taking place every three weeks.

Travel Leaders has also repurposed its team of associates that typically assists agents with reservations. Now they spend their days dealing with exchanges.

Carriers themselves also say they’ve enhanced their communications with agents during the crisis.

American said it is “pressing more than ever” to share the information travel advisors need. Allison Taylor, the carrier’s senior vice president of global sales and distribution, is hosting regular calls with agencies. And American is using its agent-focused SalesLink webpage to provide its latest policy updates, travel notices and service suspensions as well as to answer questions that have emerged as recurring themes.

Similarly, Delta said it keeps its online agency resource Delta Professional up to date. The carrier also said it has increased its direct communications with travel agents, including making sure staffers are available at all times to answer travel agent questions.

“Fast, reliable and dependable information is more important than ever in these changing times, and we’ve made supporting our agency partners a priority,” Delta spokeswoman Susannah Thurston said.

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