Reports of chaos at many airports are now plentiful. In the face of soaring demand, airlines have so far shown that they are not ready for the boom. This may not be entirely their fault, but the airlines are the parties with the best chance of balancing the reservations and flights available. Scenes of airports packed with restless passengers are common, however, as flight after flight is delayed, then canceled. This can happen at any airport at any time. It will improve, but probably not for a while.
Travel advisors clearly cannot control this situation. Holds what your systems tell you is available. Given the prevalence of problems, the question is: How do you handle this with your customers?
I remember the scout motto: be ready. The story may have been fabricated, but it is said that “On hearing the Scout slogan, someone asked Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell the inevitable follow-up question. “Ready for what?” He answered, “Why, for anything old.”
This response illustrates well what a modern travel advisor should do given the fact that even the best laid plans are prone to system problems that no one seems to be able to predict or control.
Slogans are easy to say, but their implementation is not so easy. Many travelers have waited patiently during the pandemic for the day they can resume visits to family or just enjoy a simple vacation away from home. Their concern about the pandemic is contributing to public anxiety as word continues to spread about airlines’ performance issues.
The travel advisor’s mantra, I suggest, should be: “For every travel booking, have a backup plan and a backup plan back up.”
Long gone are the days when canceling a flight simply meant rebooking a nearby flight that was about to leave with empty seats heading to your destination. If the reports are correct, most flights are booked for one or more capacity. The scale of the cancellations means that there are no ready alternatives for many travelers who arrive at the airport ill-equipped to deal with the physical and emotional costs of their disappointment when they know their “plans” won’t come true. Few rational people would blame their travel advisor for these failures but in this moment, rationality is sometimes a rare commodity.
Thus, I believe a wise travel advisor will perform many key tasks for each booked traveler especially if the advisor knows, for example, that special circumstances exist. Such circumstances are excessive consequences arising from the defeat of travel plans. You can easily think of examples: a cruise in a distant port – the line will not hold the ship for passengers who arrive late; A tour from the destination city with the family who have not been together for years due to the pandemic; An important business meeting in which the presence of the traveler is expected and important.
The solution, which is limited but essential, is to create two backup plans. I do not suggest booking twice. This will simply make things worse for everyone. But every traveler booked by a consultant must arrive armed with a detailed explanation of what to do if the flight is canceled or delayed to the point where it no longer makes sense.
For those of us who insist on being “prepared”, this may include simply providing the traveler with emergency contact information from which to obtain reliable advice:
- The airline (maybe useless, but still)
- A printed list of other numbers to contact (you, the counselor, among others)
- A list of things to take to the airport for sustenance in case of a delay (cereal bars, whatever the customer wants)
- If kids are traveling, make suggestions for items that keep them busy; It’s surprising how many families expect children to enjoy themselves without doing anything.
Preparing for travel turmoil will not always compensate for frustration, and often anger, when the “unexpected” occurs. In a rare case, expressing anger from airline employees may improve the situation, but it usually only makes the situation worse. You cannot be a traveler’s personal tutor to lead her in meditation at the airport. But you can respectfully remind your client that we are still in the unusual position of emerging from (hopefully) the pandemic. The traveler should expect the unexpected and try to remain calm.
Some pointers from a professional travel advisor may help in these lines. It’s an individual decision, of course, because some people don’t want to hear that life may not go as planned and/or don’t like being told to “calm down.” But by preparing the client in advance, you may avoid becoming the target called to do the act of backtracking at the last minute.
These recommendations may require significant additional work from the counselor. For example, if customers are traveling a long distance to the airport or have close contact somewhere, you can consider checking the availability of hotels nearby “just in case”. Capabilities can change quickly, of course, especially near busy centers, but arming the client with some options (addresses and phone numbers come to mind) means the client may avoid that feeling of isolation and powerlessness caused by stress and unfamiliarity. Since there are others in the same boat, saving a few minutes of time figuring out who to call can benefit your customers.
Obviously, I’m sure, in arming a client with emergency instructions, you don’t want to create more stress than is warranted. Diplomacy and tact go a long way here. Everyone in your office booking flights should have a detailed plan to provide the necessary information and How to present it. The preparation should be soothing, not causing further anxiety.
The future holds many questions, including the possible evolution of COVID -19 into other variables that will add to the uncertainty. However, should the economy stabilize at some point, air travel will return to a more reliable operation. This may take some time. In the modern era, we have never faced a global challenge of this magnitude. Your state of mind will influence the attitude of your clients when disruptions occur. Think about what you would do if you were the client. Then prepare them to do so.