Travel Agents Heroes of Volcano Crisis

Travel agents are emerging as heroes to many travelers during the volcanic ash crisis that is only now coming to a costly end. As the blame game begins, travel agents appear to have proven their value as the public reached out for help.

While the evidence is often anecdotal at this point, its clear that many travel agents went the extra mile for their clients, responding with professional skill to a crisis that engulfed millions of travelers. Case studies of how agents helped clients may prove invaluable.

Lost revenues now total more than $1.7 billion for airlines alone, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says, calling the six-day crisis devastating. At its worst, the crisis impacted 29 percent of global aviation and affected 1.2 million passengers a day. The scale of the crisis eclipsed 9/11 when U.S. airspace was closed for three days.

American Express Business Travel, for example, reports that its agents have been on the frontlines of the crisis from the first day. It rallied its global service delivery and communications teams to ramp up hours and provide 24/7 availability.

One telling statistic is that service capacity was up 600 percent more than average to provide much needed support to business travelers, while call volumes from stranded travelers reached 5,000 percent over their usual levels. Travel counselors have done everything from re-routing flights to just providing peace of mind, American Express says.

Liberty Travel is another retail group that went the extra mile. Billy McDonough, president of Liberty Travel, notes the value of the resources available to clients of professional agents compared to impersonal online bookings – especially in a crisis.

Forced to alter their plans on short notice, many travelers turned to Liberty Travel for assistance, McDonough said, "this is where the value of our business model really shines.” Shortly following the volcanic eruption, Liberty Travel's phones began ringing with calls from travelers whose near future travel plans were disrupted, as well as those currently overseas and unable to return home.

"We even received calls from travelers who hadn't booked with us originally, but got a hold of an agent's contact information from other travelers who were in the same place and the same situation,” McDonough said. "Obviously, we do everything we can to help anyone who calls us. Flying was completely out of the question from some airports, but were able to assist many travelers in finding affordable accommodations. They may not be able to get home, but at least they can be comfortable and maybe even enjoy a few days in the city they happen to be in.”

He notes that some travelers were willing to explore other means of getting home, whether it was a cruise ship, or traveling over land to an airport where they had a better chance of getting a flight. "These are options not everyone is willing to try, but options Liberty Travel's agents are well-prepared to handle," he said.

"We will do everything in our power to rebook flights or holidays to a future date. If a reasonable alternative cannot be found, we will work with our suppliers and will do everything possible to get clients a full refund," McDonough said.

Unknown at this point is the impact, if any, on bookings to Europe this summer or the effects on future pricing. In addition to the airlines and airports, the impact of the crisis was felt by tour operators, hoteliers, insurers, cruise lines and car rental firms.


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