Just how thorny are relations between sellers of travel and the
major U.S. airlines?
More than a few agents found it hard to repress a sense of
satisfaction - “Dare I say, even glee,” a former agent said when
United Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week.
While most travel agents express sympathy for employees of the
world’s second-largest carrier, few shed tears for the
“Bad management brought them to this point,” maintained Pat
Funk, vice president of the Association of Retail Travel Agents. UA
has been losing $20 million a day, $1.7 billion during the first
three quarters of 2002 alone. The company’s once high-flying stock,
worth $100 a share in 1997, has plummeted to less than a $1 - and
some still consider it overpriced.
The carrier has experienced revolving-door leadership, onerous
union contracts, a fractious labor force, fear of terrorism, a down
economy and one more thing.
“I think there are huge numbers of agents in the United States
who haven’t sold a United ticket in probably two years,” Funk said.
After the airline instituted commission caps and, finally, cuts,
travel agents “did every thing they could to take away traffic from
United. And I think they succeeded,” Funk said.
United filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Dec. 9, just
days after the federal Air Transportation Stabilization Board
rejected its request for $1.8 billion in federal loan
“When they went for the loan, it wasn’t their cost-cuttings that
didn’t get them the loan, it was the fact they terribly overstated
their revenues,” said Richard Copland, president of the American
Society of Travel Agents. “The problem is that they’re relying on
sales over the Internet. It ain’t going to work,” Copland said.
The ASTA president repeated his mantra that airlines and agents
should work together to extricate the travel industry from its
He says that he doesn’t expect the return of 10 percent
commissions. But he contends the time is ripe for some sort of
airline/agent détente, one over and above overrides.
TravelAge West talked with key agents in two United towns:
Denver and San Francisco. The first city is UA’s second-largest
domestic hub; the second, its transPacific gateway.
For Paula Keyser, the secretary/treasurer of A Ticket to Ride in
Lakewood, Colo., the biggest concern is what will happen to
service. “I’m concerned about spots where you don’t get other
airlines, like Sheridan, Wyo. the little spots where we don’t have
any other service,” said Keyser, who noted that about half the
tickets she writes are for United.
Even before the bankruptcy filing, UA had said it would cut 6
percent of its capacity next year. The bankruptcy court could
double that number.
But Denver does have a hometown alternative Frontier Airlines.
“We’ve actually pushed for Frontier, just so the competition would
stay in Denver,” Keyser said. “Unfortunately, Frontier has a
limited number of places that it travels.”
Keyser said her clients, especially leisure travelers, are not
booking with UA now. “The leisure traveler planning for next March
or April, they’re concerned with what might be out there,” she
said. Steven Tobin is concerned too. The president of The Travelers
Edge in Denver says 75 percent of his clients use United. “United
owns the market here,” he said.
As talk of bankruptcy increased over the Dec. 7 weekend, Tobin
said, his United representative called. “They were very much trying
to reassure us, to say that it’s going to be business as usual,”
Tobin said. While that may be an overstatement, Tobin doesn’t think
the carrier is going to disappear, nor, he said, do his customers.
“Clients are understanding that Chapter 11 is just a
reorganization,” he said. “But there are some that are a little
George Lippi, president of Fugazi Travel in San Francisco, knows
that 40 percent of his customers book United but he believes past
is prelude, that United will go the way of Pan Am. Once the Big
Blue Ball dominated international air travel. Then, as Pan Am began
to struggle, it sold its Pacific routes ironically, to United. The
Atlantic routes went to Delta.
Left only with Latin America, Pan Am finally disappeared
entirely in 1991. “If you look at Pan American and Eastern you can
almost predict what will happen,” Lippi said. “I think they will
follow the pattern of pre-existing failures. I think they will
probably go away and come back with a different name.”
Lippi said he bears no ill will toward UA, despite its treatment
of travel agents. “That’s just the way business is headed these
days,” he said. “That’s the way things are.”
Sheila Hyman expresses a similar view. “The worst thing they did
was get rid of the travel agency community,” said Hyman, president
of Tanforan Travel in San Bruno, Calif. But, she adds, “I am of the
opinion that United will make it. I don’t think it’s the beginning
of the end.”
Anyone who is familiar with the Bay Area knows San Bruno and its
view of San Francisco International Airport. Every day, Hyman
watches United’s big blue/gray widebodies head north toward the
Golden Gate, then hang a left and head out over the world’s largest
ocean for points east.
United is king at SFO. “The brand loyalty is extremely strong.
It would take a significant deterioration in both the availability
and level of service qualitatively speaking for current preferred
fliers of United to seek an alternate means of transportation,”
said Chris Spirandelli, president of Bryan International Travel in
But it’s the spectre of shoddy service that worries ARTA’s Pat
Funk. UA employees hold 55 percent of the carrier’s stock and have
three members on UA’s board of directors. Federal bankruptcy court
could scrap that employee ownership arrangement and impose further
wage cuts. “That does not make for happy employees,” Funk said. And
United employees, some agents contend, haven’t been the most
outgoing folks anyway.
“You couldn’t get a smile out of them,” Funk said. “I’ve heard
horror stories galore.” But, on Dec. 9, as the bankruptcy papers
were being filed, Sheila Hyman was flying United from Miami to San
Francisco and reported nothing but good cheer. The captain
announced the bankruptcy but “he was very, very upbeat,” she said.
“The employees were nice, which was a surprise. The food wasn’t
“But it’s almost like, ‘It’s a little late.’” n