Airline customers have better choices


Consumers have more choices when booking airline tickets as the power of online search engines continue to grow.  Online discount sites may offer you the cheapest travel itinerary by exploring all alternative flights, whereas airline websites can provide an easy way to book tickets online. While traditional travel agencies seem to be able to address your concerns via a phone call, they increasingly lose momentum as customers seek alternative services in droves.


Particularly, I found that airlines can provide better services to customers who face a burning issue, such as a change in flight itinerary due to health conditions or bad weather.


I reported a few months ago of a reader’s experience where a travel agency pocketed the bereavement discount offered by Air Canada for his tickets to Beijing after his father died. But the story below is about the experience of my own, though it may be much less dramatic than that of the reader.


I bought a round trip ticket of Hainan Airline for my mother’s recent trip to Beijing. Instead of contacting the airline directly, I sought a convenient route by calling a travel agency. When I was quoted with a price of $1100, much cheaper than $1800 of Air Canada’s ticketed price, I was thrilled – I thought I got the best deal for my trans-Atlantic flight.


But not long after I thanked the agent profusely, my excitement completely disappeared. When I dropped off my mom at the airport, I learned from a passenger in a check-in lineup that he bought the ticket for only $900 -- through direct booking with the airline.


But it was only through the change of my mom’s itinerary request that I realized what a better deal an airline can offer.


My mother had gone through a surgery while in Beijing due to severe back pain and she needed to fly back to Toronto earlier than the original plan of September. I almost suffered an anxiety attack as she was making a dire plea to escape the hot and uncomfortable living conditions in Beijing.


 “I can’t wait till September… Can you arrange for August?”


I remembered that the ticket I bought allowed me to change the return date – thank goodness! I quickly contacted the agent who helped me purchase the ticket and found myself engage in a conversation that almost trapped me into another bad deal.


“While you are allowed to change your return date, you must pay for the differences between the market price and the fare you paid, plus $100 processing fee,” she said. “Given August being the high travel season as most students return to Toronto, the price is much more expensive than September.”


“Okay… But how high would that be?” I asked, nervously.


After quite a few seconds of rapid keystrokes, she gave me the exact answer that was entirely out of my expectation – I had to pay almost an additional $1000 dollars to secure a ticket in August.


“Do you want it? You have to give me an answer very soon to secure the ticket… I can’t wait for too long as the seats are VERY limited.”


I almost gave her a green light to proceed with the purchase, if I didn’t need to consult with my mother about the changed flight.


But $1000 was even more than what that the passenger I met at the check-in paid for his round trip. While waiting to contact my mother to discuss the changed schedule, I changed my mind and decided to seek help from the airline directly.


After specifying mom’s medical conditions and her senior age, Hainan Airline expressed their willingness to help out. A few keystrokes later, the airline presented a much better offer –which was $700 lower than the price quoted by the agent.



I am not sure whether the airline offered this deal directly to its customers only or if the agent wanted to profit from my desperate situation. According to an article in the Star, in responding to market competition, airlines often run flash sales to customers who book direct.


The Star article also cites a recent survey by the website FlightView, which tracks the arrival and departure status of flights. It found that most travelers prefer airline websites.


The survey of 2,066 people who used FlightView’s mobile app in April found that 59 per cent usually buy their tickets from airlines, while nearly 30 per cent buy from online travel agents. Only 8 per cent buy from traditional travel agents, and 3 per cent say they don’t book their own travel.


The experience of my own and the reader tell me that the stats really make sense. If travel agencies are unable to provide the best deal to customers, a growing stream of passengers are going to steer away from travel agencies and seek alternatives in their travel arrangements.

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