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With United, ASTA and BTC, Issues Matter to Travel Agents Survival

July 16, 2009 By: George Dooley

Like it or not, travel agents are often the center of the storm when it comes to airline and cruise policies and legislative or economic issues impacting the traveling public. If you doubt it, look at the current mess created by United Airlines over agents' use of credit cards – an issue that could do severe damage to travel agents and the travelers they serve.

Problems, controversies and clashes of interest are an inevitable part of being a travel agent. That’s why it’s vital to be aware of the issues that impact the travel industry. Major groups such as ASTA, which has an aggressive and well-managed legislative relations capability, also frequently needs grassroots member support.  Chris Russo, ASTA’s president and chair, for example, is currently urging travel agents to protest United’s policy to members of Congress. Numbers count.

That’s why it is appropriate to take a moment to wish Kevin Mitchell, founder and chair of the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) a happy 15th anniversary. Mitchell is one among the few leaders who are in the front ranks of defending and advocating for travel agents and a competitive travel distribution system that counterbalances airline power and influence.

Mitchell’s work has earned him the praise of Nobel Prize winners, members of Congress, government officials and a host of senior industry executives for his efforts.  While focused on corporate travel buyers and travel management firms, Mitchell understands the importance of travel agents in all their diversity and the competitive challenges they face. This includes complex technology issues and the need for an international viewpoint. He has testified before Congress and other U.S. and foreign government bodies 30 times.

BTC’s evolution parallels the recent history of the travel industry. After leaving a senior executive post at CIGNA, Mitchell founded the Business Travel Contractors Corporation (BTCC), a corporate travel buying group, and in 1997 founded the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group. Mitchell has been at the center of the storm. BTC’s history also offers a lesson in the constancy of challenges that the travel distribution system faces.  Consider a few of the issues:  barriers to the entry of low cost carriers, open skies, passenger rights legislation, European Union CRS deregulation, aircraft maintenance and outsourcing, Air Canada’s distribution policy and mergers such as Delta and Northwest.

Mitchell’s BTC is financed by membership dues, subscriptions to his website Travelogue, speaking engagements and issues-driven events. He has kept his integrity, has a widespread following, and carries influence with trade and consumer media concerned with travel and airline related issues. He is also alert to international regulatory and legislative problems and maintains an office in Brussels, Belgium.

In the case of United’s plan to restrict agents' use of credit cards, Mitchell was among the first to see the dangers of United’s program and offered an analysis of the airline's action that helped coalesce opposition to the move.  In short, Mitchell has the expertise and the skill to mobilize and shape industry opinion and grasp the levers of power to influence events. He also relishes the complexity and conflicts inherent to the industry.

While the current crisis with United dominates the headlines for the moment, travel agents can be assured that it isn’t the last calamity the industry faces.  More are sure to come, and the price will be agents' awareness and involvement. Issues matter and can shape agency profitability and the ability to serve clients professionally. Neither ASTA nor Mitchell can do it alone. They need grassroots support and input.  But one bit of good news is that travel agents and the industry have a knowledgeable, energetic, high integrity ally in Kevin Mitchell and the BTC. Happy anniversary.

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