Online travel agents: you get what you pay for…

Consumer Watch journalist Wendy Knowler talks about the benefits of using a travel agent…

July 9 2012

Last November I incurred the wrath of many travel agents by featuring in this column the results of a Synovate survey which found that consumers could fly to domestic and international destinations far cheaper if they booked using online travel agencies instead of traditional ones.

The researchers had contacted 50 branches of six traditional travel agency groups, collecting hundreds of quotes for local and international destinations.

They compared pricing, consistency and quality of service.

The price differences for flights to Amsterdam, on the same dates, were the most alarming, with the quotes ranging from R6 000 to R14 300 from Cape Town, and from R7 429 to R12 426 from Joburg.

The survey was paid for by online travel agency Travelstart, which naturally had a vested interest in the outcome.

Travelstart chief executive Stephan Ekbergh was quoted as saying: “Consumers are realising that online travel agencies offer them the advantages of lower prices, greater transparency, more flexibility, convenience, a wider choice, and more control over their flight booking experience.”

Naturally, Robyn Christie, chief executive of the Association of SA Travel Agents (Asata) had a different view, saying the traditional travel agents’ service – for which clients pay a fee – included the negotiation of competitive rates, providing 24-hour access in the event of any unforeseen changes, and interpreting complicated fare rules to avoid unnecessary charges.

“The market is well versed with the virtues of the online booking agents,” she said, “but equally aware of the consequences of when things go wrong, which they do more often than not.”

“It is at these times when the value of a relationship with a travel company becomes essential.”

At the time, Travelstart was a member of Asata, but resigned shortly afterwards.

I have good reason to return to this story now.

In January I started exploring flight options to Vancouver, having agreed to meet my cousins across the globe in that city for a reunion at the end of June.

I sourced a couple of traditional travel agency quotes, then decided to try the online route for the first time.

I went with US-based online agency Orbitz, and settled on a quote considerably cheaper than the traditional agency ones I’d been given.

My route was Joburg-London-Vancouver, returning Vancouver-Toronto-New York-Joburg, on a mix of airlines – Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada and United, operated by SAA.

The fact that the main flights in both directions were delayed by many hours, causing major disruption to our schedule, was not Orbitz’s fault, of course, but the agency was guilty of shocking communication.

Virgin Atlantic’s Flight 602 from OR Tambo to Heathrow was scheduled to depart at 8.30pm on June 22.

At 3.30pm that day Orbitz sent me an e-mail saying it was delayed until around midnight, and the flight information at the airport confirmed this.

My parents and I had just finished dinner in the airport at around 9pm when my mother did an e-mail check and discovered an e-mail sent by Orbitz, saying the flight had taken off at 8.30pm as scheduled.

Panic-stricken, we raced back to the boarding gate to discover that the flight had yet to take off. As it turned out, it didn’t leave until 2am the following morning and we ended up getting to Vancouver 24 hours later than planned (see sidebar).

Worse was to come on my return, this time travelling alone. Concerned about my tight connection in New York, I called United Airlines from Vancouver on my departure day – June 30 – to say I’d be rushing to make the flight, and that I had no check-in baggage.

It referred me to SAA, where a chap called Oscar told me the flight from New York had been delayed from 11.15am the following day to 8.50pm.

It was the first I’d heard of it, and when I later called United I got even worse news – I was no longer booked on that flight.

Having held on for answers from Orbitz for well over an hour on a cellphone, a consultant told me SAA had indeed cancelled my New York to Joburg flight, and maybe I should ask Air Canada to refund that portion of my trip and buy a new ticket to get home.

Just like that. Sorry for you.

By then it was after 4pm on the Saturday, and SAA’s US customer care office was closed.

Orbitz’s customer service supervisor, Logan, followed up with the following e-mail, sent that evening, just hours before my departure from Vancouver: “We would like to informed (sic) you that your flight from JFK to JNB was just cancelled yesterday by South African Airways. We tried to reinstate the flight directly with the airline.

“However, their specialised department is currently closed.

“The best adviced (sic) that we give you is to confirm your flight directly with the airline’s counter.

“We do apologise for the inconvenience. Thank you!”

When I made it to the SAA counter at JFK the following morning – ironically in good time for the originally scheduled flight – they confirmed the almost 10-hour delay and the fact that I wasn’t booked on the flight.

But I was quickly reinstated by a charming and sympathetic supervisor, and sent to a nearby hotel for the day with a complimentary room and a lunch voucher.

Then came another e-mail from Orbitz.

“United Airlines flight 7916 departs New York John F Kennedy Intl (JFK) on time at 11.15am…”

Unbelievable. Another Orbitz e-mail with outdated departure information.

I tried to get hold of Orbitz last week, e-mailing “Logan” with a media query. I received a cellphone call from a blocked number with a message so garbled that I heard nothing apart from the words “New York”.

It could have been from Orbitz but I have no way of knowing.

I wrote back to Orbitz, asking for an e-mailed response, which hadn’t come at the time of writing.

So why was my New York to Joburg SAA flight cancelled, and why didn’t SAA contact me directly?

The airline’s customer service executive, Suretha Cruse, began by saying that the flight was delayed because an incoming flight left Joburg about 12 hours late on June 29, and the crew had to get their mandatory 48 hours’ rest before doing the New York to Joburg return flight.

“Our staff in Fort Lauderdale immediately made contact with customers who had contact or e-mail information on their reservations details, to advise them of the change in schedule,” Cruse said.

“Unfortunately we did not have your personal contact details on your reservation.”

So SAA sent a flight cancellation notice to its codeshare partner – United Airlines – which should have forwarded it to the “owner of the reservation”, Orbitz.

“For some inexplicable reason the flight cancellation message was generated, but not the reaccommodation message.

“Be assured that this matter is receiving priority by our IT team to avoid a recurrence of this nature. It is very unfortunate that this system failure caused the circumstances in question.

“We wish to express our humble and sincere apologies for the stress and frustration that you were subjected to as a result of the delay,” Cruse said.

As we boarded that SAA flight to Joburg at JFK, 10 hours later than scheduled, all passengers were handed a notice offering us a 25 percent discount on an SAA flight, valid for 12 months.

So yes, I got to Vancouver and back, having paid less than I would have had I done the booking via a traditional travel agency.

But frankly, I wouldn’t do it again, especially not in the case of multiple connections.

Because when things go wrong, as they do, you need the agency to which you paid your fare to be in your corner; to be accessible; to take ownership |of the problem and make it possible for you to be kept informed of any changes in good time.

As it was, I was fed conflicting, bewildering flight information, left to find out about crucial flight changes on my own, and abandoned to my fate.

Lesson learnt.

* In the US, up to 50 percent of flight bookings are made online but in SA that figure is just 5 percent.

Virgin Atlantic – not feeling the love

Most flight delays are unavoidable and beyond the control of airlines. What they do have control over, though, is how they treat passengers.

On the evening of June 22, several airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, were thrown into chaos by a fault in a flight planning system.

The flight my parents and I booked from Joburg to Heathrow, London, scheduled to depart at 8.30pm, was initially delayed until midnight, and left only at 2am.

Virgin Atlantic staff appeared at the boarding gate only very late that evening, then said very little.

No refreshments were provided to the waiting passengers. Having landed at Heathrow, we’d missed our Air Canada flight to Vancouver and were told by a Virgin rep waiting outside the plane to go to that airline’s transfer counter for help.

After we waited in that queue, Air Canada said it wasn’t its problem and directed us to the monstrous Virgin queue.

We stood in that queue for four and a half hours, during which time we weren’t offered any refreshments or approached by any Virgin official with help or advice.

Having finally made it to the desk, we were directed to a nearby hotel for Virgin-paid dinner, bed and breakfast, and issued with Air Canada tickets for a flight to Vancouver the next morning – 24 hours later than the one we’d been booked on.

I have since e-mailed Virgin Atlantic, questioning its handling of the delay, as well as its failure to provide refreshments on either end, which contradicts the airline’s website promises in the event of the kind of a delay that we experienced.

Responding, a Virgin spokesperson apologised and said a “thorough internal investigation” was being conducted “to ascertain exactly what took place”.
Twitter: @wendyknowler