Internet and cellphone technologies mean consumers can shop for and buy airline tickets without standing in line, waiting on hold or enlisting the help of a travel agent.
Some call that convenient. Others see it as a curse as what once was considered good customer service falls to the wayside to make way for a do-it-yourself environment wherein consumers are likely to face fees for human interactions on air-travel matters.
I think its coming that airlines will begin charging people to check in with a real person, said La Plata County Airport Director Ron Dent. Thats been discussed in the industry, and obviously the airlines already have moved heavily toward ancillary fees.
Rick Klatt, owner of Klatt Travel in Durango, concurred.
Klatt said its likely that eventually any need for human interaction with the airline industry will result in a transaction fee. And for him, thats something worth mourning.
Its sad, but until consumers start really balking at all those fees, I dont see them stopping, Klatt said.
The new fees and technologies together have created a sector of technologically savvy travelers who know just how to pack to avoid bag-check charges, lengthy security searches, check in for flights via Internet and cellphones, whiz past the ticket counters at airports and head straight to security lines.
They know exactly what theyre doing, Dent said.
It also has created another group of travelers who experience confusion more than anything else when flying, he said.
Im seeing those people struggling with the direction air-travel technologies are going. For them, its confusing, and often, its hard to get a person to talk to, Dent said, Those folks need a lot of hand-holding.
For some, that could mean the rebirth of business.
The airlines continuing move away from providing employees to personally walk customers through their travel experience has opened the door for an industry that some locals thought was all but dead travel agents.
People are starting to realize that theyre missing talking to people, said Valerie Mouze, owner of Crown Executive Travel in Durango. The industry has lost that personal touch, and its so essential.
In fact, the thought of fees associated with simple customer-service interactions, such as checking in for a flight, incenses Mouze.
I cant believe its getting to that, Mouze said. How dare they penalize people for not using computers.
It wouldnt be the first change that affected travel agents such as Mouze and Klatt, though.
They have seen the industry change drastically during their combined decades of service in Durango.
Where airlines once paid their commissions, customers now pay a processing fee. And although it keeps many customers from ever picking up the phone, some consumers might be surprised to learn they are still paying a processing fee anyway.
Many do-it-yourself online booking sites either wrap the fees into the ticket prices quoted on the screen or include small print during the checkout process, noting an additional processing fee will be charged to the credit card alongside the ticket purchase.
It means customers are paying for customer service even though youre still not talking to anyone, and you did all the work, Mouze said.
In fact, although a percentage of Mouze and Klatts customers are those who simply cannot or will not use computers to book their own travel arrangements, a larger percentage of clients are technologically capable and could do the job themselves.
They could do it on their own, but using me saves them time and money in the legwork, Mouze said.
People spend hours, days and even weeks wading through the air-travel options online and searching for the best prices.
Theres no reason for anyone to do that, Klatt said.
A travel agent can sift through the same information much faster and usually will produce the same deals, Klatt and Mouze said. Theyre especially helpful for international travel and complicated, multiple-destination trips, the pair said.
When things go awry, customers have a person to help them get their travel plans back on track.
The more automated the industry gets, the more were seeing how its not to our benefit as travelers when problems arise, Klatt said.
There are few helpers around to deal with delayed, missed and canceled flights, he said.
About the only customer service you see in the travel industry these days is coming from us, Klatt said. Ive had it happen where I was able to exchange, modify and fix problems for customers while theyre still on hold with the airline on another phone.
In the end, the rapid pace of technology may not mean the death sentence to travel agents that some thought it would. So far, it has meant job security.
Back in the old days, we were an agent of the airlines. Now were consumer advocates, said Klatt. Unless the airlines drastically change the track theyre on, I dont see how travel agencies would cease to exist.