No bond between airlines and agents

BANGKOK, 29 June 2017: Are airlines quietly denying travel agencies the oxygen of a competitive fare? Or perhaps they smothering their business partner quietly with a fluffy pillow, praying the old codger would breathe his last and be gone?  Sadly it looks that way for the almost pensioned travel agent.

Long gone are the days when airlines depended on travel agencies for the bulk of their bookings. The very notion of keeping back a best-of-its-class fare was unheard of when travel agencies ruled the roost. Just the hint that a better deal could be sourced elsewhere would have brought the travel agency community down on the hapless airline like a ton of bricks.

I had almost forgot the love-hate relationship between airlines and travel agencies. I just assumed that if I sourced a great fare on an airline website that the airline would still be looking out for its faithful business partner, the traditional travel agency. The same fare would be available to a loyal agent. All I had to was ask. No such luck.

Travel agencies are already struggling to stay a float in the airline ticketing market, but with each passing day they are losing the battle. There are now fewer agents than ever who bother with airline ticketing if it is not bundled with a travel itinerary, hotel accommodation and sightseeing.

Airlines will assume we prefer to source our own ticketing bargains. They are probably right, but occasionally we just can’t find the time to spend a morning comparing offers, working out the best option and paying for it with a credit card that comes with a 5% surcharge.

A well-known and reliable travel chain, Six Stars, has an office in a shopping mall in downtown Chiang Rai, so if I am feeling too lazy to check out airline offers online on a Saturday morning, I pop-by for a coffee, while the Six Stars manager does all the hard work.

When she has the right fare, I just pop out to the ATM a few metres down the mall and pay for the fare in cash. It’s reliable, hassle-free and one of the chores you can fit in while in the town’s top shopping mall.  The car gets a shampoo, I enjoy a double Espresso and Six Stars handles my travel arrangements. It usually works.

Travelling from Chiang Rai to Singapore with a minimal encounter in congested Suvarnabhumi, or Don Mueang airport, is a challenge if you are looking for a bargain.

The most reliable option if you want to check bags to the final destination is the popular check-through flights on Thai AirAsia.  For around THB11,000 you can buy a roundtrip fare CEI-SIN-CEI including 20 kg of luggage, snacks and a pre-booked front-row seat on all four sectors.

The ground time in Bangkok is around two hours and the overall travel time between Chiang Rai and Singapore is a manageable six hours and 30 minutes.

When Thai Smile took over all of Thai Airways International flights on the Chiang Rai-Bangkok route, travellers discovered the booking systems of the two airlines speak different codes. If you visit the Thai Airways’ site a flight starting in Chiang Rai is not an option and, of course, to complete the mystery Thai Smile obliges with no reference to a flight option ending in Singapore.

You have to make two separate bookings if you have the time and patience. I popped by Six Stars where an obliging ticketing agent worked on the conundrum. The best roundtrip offer combining WE and TG with a change of planes in Suvarnabhumi was THB14,000. If I payed another THB10,000 I could fly to Europe and back, stay in a three-star hotel and enjoy and sightseeing in France and Germany, or so the Six Stars TV screen was telling me. The best offers are always for the destinations that are not on your bucket list.

I had a brainwave. I had noticed online that SilkAir was offering a THB5,670 roundtrip fare, Chiang Mai – Singapore. The three-hour 15 minute nonstop flight comes with a meal and 30 kg of luggage. Ah, I can take my bike and enjoy the cycle lanes of Singapore’s East Coast park.

I asked my friendly travel agent to book the fare on SilkAir. Chiang Mai airport is just 180 km away, which is a comfortable three-hour car drive from home. I would save three hours of flying time and enjoy a nonstop flight. Missing  the chaos in Suvarnabhumi was a bonus and the Chiang Mai airport’s  24-hour parking fee is a bargain at THB200.  There was a hitch.

“Flying Silk Air, that will be THB10,800 roundtrip,” she told me.

What happened to the THB5,670 fare?  Six Stars had no idea it even existed. It was being short changed on the best fare deals by its business partner Silk Air. It came across as a little sneaky and very embarrassing for  Six Stars that prides itself on offering the best fares. A manager from the travel agency’s head office in Bangkok called and asked for details of the fare. In the end he apologised for not being able to offer the same deal.

I was more disappointed in SilkAir. It should have flagged the fare as exclusive to web visitors and not available through other booking channels. That would have saved time.

If you are going to use multiple booking channels at least support them with your best fares, or create added value for the web offer to differentiate it from what third party channels quote.

For example, if SilkAir had taken away the hot meal and reduced the luggage allowance to 10 kg for a fare purchased through a travel agency then it might have made sense.

Airlines have every right to offer perks on their websites, but if they intend to keep the travel agency channel open for business they have to give them access to the same fares. They are not and that is causing many travel agents to ditch air ticketing and concentrate entirely on tour packaging.