When things go wrong with an online travel agency — and they often do — we assume it’s the result of incompetence.
But what if it’s something else?
That’s the intriguing question raised by the stack of online documents recently deposited in my inbox by a group of former employees for a major online travel agency. Based on the conversations I’ve had with them, I believe these whistleblowers are legit. And soon, I plan to name them and their employer.
For now, enough is known to issue a stern warning, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Based on their statements, here’s what you need to know now:
Beware of fees.
Their agency is a fee factory, according my insiders. The company charges a service fee when a customer calls their contact center — often hundreds of dollars. It’s all disclosed in the fine print of the terms and conditions. Nothing illegal about that, of course, except that people who call to book sometimes don’t know about the fees until the end of the booking process, by which time they are unlikely to cancel.
Watch for fare inflation.
When a customer calls the travel agency’s contact center for a flight booking, the agent can see there are tickets available for a set fare. But the agent quotes a higher price. If a customer on that call happens to find prices cheaper than quoted online, the agents go into the reservation system, block those fare classes, and ask the customer to “check again.” At this point the customer sees the higher price point, and the agent demands the customer book immediately or face another price hike.
24-hour rule? What 24-hour rule?
The agency routinely ignores the Transportation Department’s 24-hour rule, say insiders. This, despite the fact that it claims to adhere to the rule on its own website. If you call to cancel, agents follow a laddered decision tree — basically, they try to find out if the customer is aware of the 24-hour rule. If not, the agents are instructed not to offer a refund. Only if the customer threatens to complain to authorities or the BBB is the fare fully refunded.
“Archaic” customer service
When a customer has a post-sales problem, the agency makes the resolution process “deliberately archaic” forcing the traveler to make multiple calls, with multiple agents, over multiple days in their pursuit for a resolution. Often, the only resolution is to approach a consumer advocate like, ahem, me. In order to cover up the agency’s misdeeds, it hires a reputation management firm to populate the complaint sites with positive comments.
Deceptive ticketing practices
Once a booking is made online there’s a separate group within the customer service department that quality controls and assesses the margins for that booking. If the team finds a similar ticket that offers a better profit margin to the company, the agent, unbeknownst to the customer, will cancel that ticket and rebook the customer on this new higher-margin ticket. Then the customer is told there’s been a “schedule change.” Similarly, when a first class, one-way business ticket is booked, and this group determines that a round-trip ticket offers a better margin, the one-way is canceled and rebooked as a round-trip. The customer is never informed that they now have a round-trip ticket. This hurts both consumers, who have to deal with unexpected schedule changes, and airlines, who lose revenue.
I know your next question: Who is doing this?
Patience, my friends. I’ll name names soon enough.
For now, I’ll leave the commenters to speculate. But that’s really the wrong question. Maybe it should be: Who is not doing this?
I think every online agency is tempted to engage in these unethical practices, to the detriment of the consumer and the industry it serves. Something to think about the next time you use an online agency.