Sneharthi Roy is the senior vice president of operations for CheapOair, a Web site that sells discounted airline tickets and hotel rooms. I asked him about the low travel prices we’ve seen lately and some of the possible pitfalls of buying travel in a buyer’s market.
In American vernacular, the word “cheapo” can be used to describe someone who is frugal and knows how to save money — which is usually thought of as a good thing — but more often than that, someone who is a miser. When you decided on the name CheapOair, what were you trying to convey?
When deciding on a name we wanted to convey value, savings and pricing to the users as well as have a catchy name which the user could remember, there were also not too many domain names available which would convey such a message. We also wanted it to be a bit on the humorous side, since travel should always be a bit of fun.
Does a traveler booking through CheapOair have the same protections as someone who buys a ticket or room through a travel agent?
Travelers booking through CheapOair have equal protections exactly like buying through any other agency. If travelers pay with a credit card, they will have the credit card protections as well.
Travelers also have our Errors and Omissions insurance protection. Our customer service policy is customer friendly and provides for refunds as well as access to changes through a toll free # and if done within the same day of making the booking. We also let them cancel a fully non-refundable ticket for a nominal fee. We are streamlining our refunds processes further to provide status updates online as well as faster processing.
How much money can customers save by using CheapOair, as opposed to going directly through an airline or through a travel agency?
Customers may save money over using direct airline’s websites and online travel agencies, because CheapOair provides multi-GDS [Global Distribution System] airfare data as well as multi-airline itineraries. We build our own itineraries through the use of our own complex mathematical algorithm where by we combine low-cost carriers with major scheduled airlines to provide more options as well as better or more pricing options.
We also display opaque negotiated airfares which may be cheaper than some published airfares. The airline’s name is revealed only after purchase is completed. Our negotiated airfares database is huge and has over 18 million airfares. We have a dedicated team of data loaders which upload all negotiated airlines fares on a daily basis so that the latest sale fares are displayed to the users. By using multiple GDS’s we have more diversity and at times better fares.
As a consumer advocate, there are two questions I get about CheapOair and its affiliated sites. The first one is: Are those deals too good to be true? I wanted to ask you — are they? How do you get the fares and hotel rates so low?
Most of the travel purchased through us is fully non-refundable. Changes are often not permitted or are permitted with a penalty as is the case in most discounted airfares.
The second common question is, in a way, an answer to the first. Yes, they say, the deals were too good to be true, and I need your help — a reference to the many fees and surcharges that are disclosed only when someone is asked to pay them. How have you addressed the issue of disclosure and transparency when it comes to buying airline tickets and hotel rooms?
This information is available in three places during the purchase process. In the “Fare rules” tab, in the “Policies, Rules and Restrictions” as well as the pop up disclaimer which each user must accept before completing the purchase. It is also mentioned that there is a penalty for changes. Name changes are never allowed.
When I read the online reviews about CheapOair, I see some positive comments, but also some not-so-positive ones. One thing that struck me was the extreme contrast: one review saying CheapOair was the greatest travel site in the world just above one that said it was the worst. Any idea what’s happening?
We get all kinds of comments, some are positive and some are negative, though we get many more positive than negative comments. In the travel business even if the airline vendors make a mistake the users blame the travel company, which we face a lot.
Here’s one comment that kind of took my breath away: “CheapOair is aggressive to put out good reviews and pay to have them come up near the top of searches, but dig just a little to find the terrible truth. They are not in the USA, they use a bait and switch tactic to defraud you out of fifty dollars in cancellation fees and then you have to cancel the bogus airline ticket they bought in which they changed the travel dates by yourself.” What kind of changes have you made to your customer service department to ensure more reviews like this aren’t generated?
We make every effort to maximize customer satisfaction. Our biggest consumer challenge is refunds processing which we are addressing in an aggressive manner and we have created a dedicated team to manage such customer complaints.
We have a team of dedicated agents who are available to provide customers by phone or email the status of refunds and clarify any related questions. Our goal is to provide users online status updates in real time and provide 24/7 toll-free customer support when processing refunds. We are also adding more and more customer service agents to assist our users. We are headquartered in New York City and directly employ customer service agents in our three wholly owner call centers, two located in United States and one in India.
So people are upset because you won’t refund a non-refundable ticket? That sounds familiar.
Since the majority of the tickets are fully non-refundable we do face a challenge when users ask us for refunds, we must then go through a tough process of convincing our airline partners to provide special waivers to process customer refunds which causes delays and dissatisfaction with our customers when requests for refunds are denied by the airlines.
As a travel agent we depend on our travel suppliers and the GDS’s, to provide us accurate and real time information on pricing and availability. When any update fails or sold out fares are not removed from the system, it causes customer resentment.
Can you give me an example?
Yes, when the user is trying to book an airfare that the system shows is available but in fact it is sold out. In this case, the systems between the airline and the customer have not caught up to the current data.
We always look to improve our technology so that there is a hassle free and smooth transaction for our valued customers.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, these problems are shared by everyone. How do you fix it?
In today’s online fast-paced environment no travel company can succeed unless they provide top level of customer support. We truly understand this, get the message and are striving to enhance our customer support levels. We have recently implemented IVR technology in our call center to provide real time confirmations and status of bookings. We have also added a dedicated team which provides schedule change information to all our customers.
Again, in the end we want to ensure our customers have a good and satisfying trip when they have used our services.