This summer of disruptions, delays and disorder has left travel agents frantically trying to serve their clients. Nothing tells that story quite like a typical day on the front lines for agent Dannielle Jasper.
This summer has been brutal for airlines, with the industry’s ongoing staffing shortages and air traffic control problems driving a massive number of flight cancellations. Roughly 15 percent of planned summer flights in the U.S. from June through August were cut from schedules while Lufthansa was forced to cancel more than 1,000 flights scheduled to depart on July 27 due to its German ground staff going on strike.
That chaos has also complicated work for travel agents. Already struggling to accommodate the surge in travelers seeking guidance in trip planning, agents are increasingly swamped with having to handle matters pertaining to flight disruptions.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this before,” said Dannielle Jasper, an agent who has worked at Cincinnati, Ohio-based agency Prestige Travel for 25 years.
“Normally, in the summer, we’re used to schedule changes and cancellations, but not like this.”
So what has a day been like for travel agents in the summer of hell? Jasper outlines a frantic day in the office.
8 to 10 a.m.
A day in the office stars calmly, as Jasper reviews queues in the company’s global distribution system for schedule changes. She could see up to 24 changes a morning, but if the changes pertain to a booking she’s made, she can handle each one in two minutes.
But chaos starts immediately when she turns on her phone.
“We have a half dozen calls first thing in the morning, every morning. ‘My flight’s been canceled, I’m stuck here’,” Jasper said. “We do a lot more servicing that booking.”
Jasper said 80 to 90 percent of the time, agents can handle flight changes in the company’s global distribution system. But she acknowledges Prestige Travel sometimes encounters glitches in the system.
“And then, we have to reach out to the airlines, which is a disaster,” Jasper said.
Why has it been a disaster? Jasper cites the staffing shortages in the airline industry. Despite having special phone numbers that could get expedited service from major airlines, she describes an all too common scenario for agents at Prestige Travel.
“Normally, we’ll get an entry level advisor on the phone, trying to call whichever airline and when they get through, they’ll let everybody in the office know, “I’ve got XYZ airline on the phone,” Jasper said.
“And we just pass it around. But it could be hours (to speak to an airline representative).”
Jasper admits that constantly speaking to airline representatives on the phone is both time consuming and exhausting.
“We’ve got at least one person, if not multiple people on the phone, trying to get a hold of airlines. And we have additional calls coming in that we have to take. So it spreads our staff thin,” he said.
10 a.m to 12:30 p.m.
Jasper continues with the morning’s agenda before shifting to other priorities, such as starting new bookings or finishing existing ones. Agents call travel vendors — such as cruise lines, and tour operators — to get the ball rolling.
But once again, it takes a long time for a representative to answer the phone — anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours. That representative doesn’t know how to make changes in the company’s global distribution system, so they need to put the advisor on hold to ask a supervisor.
“(We’re) often disconnected and (having) to start the process all over again,” Jasper said. That process regularly takes more than two hours.
12:30 to 1:30 p.m.
Jasper finally has time away as steps away from her computer for lunch.
1:30 to 4 p.m.
Jasper then takes calls or answers inquiries from travelers interested in using the services of an agent. She has 20 such interactions a day, and she acknowledges she doesn’t have time to help all prospective clients.
“(So) we have to vet the prospects to ensure they are serious about booking,” she said.
Jasper then has to refocus on calls from more customers whose flights have been cancelled or delayed. She does what she can in the company’s global distribution system, expressing gratitude for the two-minute transactions. But if she can’t make changes in the system, she has to go through the cumbersome process of trying to reach a vendor on the phone.
4 to 8 p.m.
Jasper steps away from the computer for a short break. A normal day would start to be winding down at this point, since Prestige Travel generally advises its agents not to work beyond 5 p.m. But the work is not slowing down since Jasper needs to complete what’s next, which typically pertains to flight cancellations.
“Unfortunately, with airline cancellations and changes, that’s not something you can normally (put off until) the next day. That’s something you have to accommodate (immediately),” she said.
Jasper is spending longer than desired at the office because she admits Prestige Travel is understaffed. “It’s very difficult to get experienced (global distribution system)-trained agents,” she said.
The lack of global distribution system-trained agents is significant because everything Prestige Travel does regarding airlines and rental is done exclusively using such systems, Jasper explains.
“If (we) have 15 employees and five are not trained on global distribution systems, (we only) have 10 people to service airline clients,” she said.
Jasper believes getting back to customers once she has the necessary information is not a problem. “(But) it’s getting the work done (and) getting the change made that takes time,” she said.
Jasper is finally finishing up at work although flights continue to get canceled. But who will help her clients when she’s not in the office?
Prestige Travel uses Travel Leaders 24, an after hours answering and servicing service for travel agencies. It has access to the agency’s global distribution system and handles requests from consumers. Jasper estimates that Prestige Travel gets up to 15 calls a night after hours.
Although she’s relieved to be going home, she knows more chaos awaits the next day.
“It’s crazy,” she said about a summer day in the office.
The Daily Newsletter
Our daily coverage of the global travel industry. Written by editors and analysts from across Skift’s brands.
Photo credit: Travel agents have had many rough days at the office this summer. Ridofranz / Getty Images