The airline industry cannot seem to get a break. Earlier this week, a technical issue at Britain’s air traffic control service led to the cancellation of over 200 flights. On this side of the Atlantic, Hurricane Idalia has caused over 1,000 flights to be canceled. And while it’s hard to picture a winner out of all of this, could travel agents end up seeing an uptick in demand?
“Clients need travel agents more than they ever have,” said Erica Wilkinson of Colorado, a travel agent with Campbell Travel. “And I am the one helping them get unstuck in these troubled times.”
Yet agents are seeing themselves stretched in ways they haven’t been in the past. According to Wilkinson, who wrote about the experience for Slate, she and her colleagues are often the last resort for stranded clients, which means more time spent on phones. Wilkinson wrote that in the week leading up to Fourth of July weekend, she spent 17 hours on the phone.
“It’s just constant upheaval, and it does fall a little more heavily on the agents than we’re used to,” Wilkinson said.
She spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the experience. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: So the headline of this piece — and I understand writers don’t get to choose their own headlines — but the headline is “Something Has Happened in the Travel Industry. I’m the One Dealing With It.” Well, what is that something, and how are you on the hook for it?
Erica Wilkinson: Well, the travel industry seems to be in an almost never-ending state of meltdown nowadays. And I’m the one dealing with it, because clients need travel agents more than they ever have. And I am the one helping them get unstuck in these troubled times.
Ryssdal: You know, it’s funny, because this piece is sort of a day in the life of what you do as a travel agent every day. And I will tell you, it sounds kind of not all that much fun, because you’re on the phone trying to get your clients unstuck from wherever they are. It is a symptom, you write, of this thing you call the New Air Travel Normal, which is, by the way, all caps.
Wilkinson: Yeah, I’ve been doing this for a dozen years. I’ve never quite seen a season of so much upheaval, like air traffic control went down in the U.K. this week at the same time that we’ve got a hurricane coming for Florida. It’s just constant upheaval, and it does fall a little more heavily on the agents than we’re used to.
Ryssdal: You write at some point — I think it was a week after Fourth of July — you spent 17, 18 hours on the phone over a couple of days trying to get your passengers rebooked.
Ryssdal: That’s a lot of time.
Wilkinson: I mean, it is not uncommon to spend several hours waiting. We are definitely feeling the squeeze and looking for new talent all the time, because it’s a lot.
Ryssdal: Would you encourage somebody to go into your line of work right now?
Wilkinson: I would say that there is a lot of opportunity at the moment, particularly because it is an aging industry. I am the baby in my current agency, and I have 12 years experience. But I would say it’s challenging. It’s something that requires a lot of constant learning — learning new technology, learning new rules and being OK with a fast pace.
Ryssdal: You know, it’s interesting, just on the whole the way the industry is changing. You write at the bottom of this piece, “As for me and my fellow agents? Our jobs have never been more secure or less secure than they are now. We’re needed more than ever — and the industry has never been more in flux.”
Wilkinson: That’s absolutely true. 9/11 was sort of a breaking point for the travel agent industry and for the travel industry at large. The pandemic has been, I heard cited at one point, nine times more impactful. So a lot of agents lost their jobs in the pandemic and a lot of them retired. And now we are trying desperately to get back up to strength because people need us.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.