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Travel agents working overtime to help panicked American passengers

February 13, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Things have been a little crazy at Boulevard Travel this week with the threat of an American Airlines strike.

``We’ve been rushing around dealing with worried American passengers who have no idea what to expect,″ said Margaret Maffia, manager at the Boonton, N.J. agency. ``Lots of phone calls, lots of questions.″

Travel agents nationwide are working overtime to prepare for a possible walkout at the nation’s largest domestic airline. They’re trying to get American ticket holders on other flights, changing vacation plans and dealing with panicked passengers.

And few are rewarded for their extra effort, after the big airlines capped the commissions paid out to agents two years ago.

The strike could begin at midnight Friday if American and its pilots’ union fail to resolve their contract dispute. That could leave millions of passengers stranded or disrupt travel plans.

American has been notifying passengers that it will try to book them on other airlines if there is a strike, which would shut down both American and its regional airline American Eagle.

But much of the burden has fallen to travel agents who are scurrying to find alternate routes and options for their customers just in case.

``Any time you’ve got a disruption in the industry, it just adds to the work,″ said Steve Loucks, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group. ``But many agents have been busy over last week making sure clients got seats on other planes.″

Agents are also faced with confusing information coming from the airlines over refunds and rebookings.

``This is just another example of how much is expected of us for minimal compensation,″ said Gloria Greenstein, owner of Gloria Travel in New York. ``We’re trying to plan some protection for our clients, but it hasn’t been easy to do and we don’t get much in return.″

Two years ago, most of the major airlines capped commissions at $25 for one-way domestic tickets and $50 for round trips. That was down from commissions of 10 percent on each sale.

Regardless of the compensation, many travel agents plan to provide extra service for their customers.

Many agencies are making sure travelers have their toll-free telephone numbers for any questions over the strike. Some of the larger national agencies plan to send staff members to airports to deal with any passenger problems.

``During the last major airline strike in 1993, we learned how important it was for travelers to see a friendly face and a helping hand at the airports,″ said Doug Ziemer, president of the Americas division at Minneapolis-based Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

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