Am I a parasite?

By | Category: Travel rumblings
cartoon of bearded man

Am I a parasite?

In travel, about 70% of people book the flight first before doing any other part of their holiday such as hotels, car hire, excursions or currency purchase. That gives airlines a greater opportunity to sell us other things because, chances are, that we are in the market to buy accommodation and a variety of related services.

But some people don’t approach an airline for airline tickets, they go to through an intermediary such as comparison websites, online travel agents, high street travel agents or review sites which are increasingly become travel agents as well. That is when customer ownership becomes muddied. Does the airline that provides the service “own” the customer or is it the booker?

Sir Tim Clark of Emirates was quite vociferous at the Aviation Festival last week calling many intermediaries “parasites.”  What does he mean? Nobody in a hall of hundreds asked him that rather simple question but I think that what he had in mind was that intermediaries block the direct conversation and can sell flights on rival airlines as well as all those things that airlines currently try to sell you. They take te commission on a sale but leave the airline holding the baby. What most airline bosses hate more than anything else are websites that come along and “scrape” the airlines website pulling out prices, load them with a commission and try to sell those to you and me. Ryanair successfully took some to court since scrapers do not have agreements with airlines to sell tickets.

But airlines need middlemen or intermediaries because not everyone will go straight to an airline website. easyJet claims that 75% of its customers approach them directly and all airlines, tour operators, cruise companies and other holiday providers would prefer it if you were to do just that. They don’t have to pay commission and, as I mentioned earlier, they have the opportunity to sell you all the other things you might need on a holiday.

In order to give you and I the confidence that contacting the airline is the best thing to do, airlines often claim that they will provide the cheapest fare that can be found anywhere (not necessarily the case) and that they care about their customers. Even Ryanair has developed a pleasanter attitude to its customers!

image of an Emirates flight

the boss of Emirates calls intermediaries parasites.

Speakers from airlines fell over themselves to say that they have to work hard to provide customers with what is wanted and to provide real benefits. Initially, easyJet didn’t offer allotted seats. Now they do having announced that that is what passengers want. Having got that customer, airlines must work hard to keep them and most airlines would claim to do so as would tour operators and hoteliers. Loyalty clubs abound but how many of us consider it worthwhile to belong? A supermarket loyalty card is useful because you have to shop for food at least once a week. But how many people stay in a hotel once a week? Or fly once a week? Or hire a car once a week or even holiday once a month?

For the vast majority, travel loyalty clubs are of little use. They have been designed for frequent users such as those flying on business.

For the occasional traveller or the holidaymaker that flies just once or twice a year, the important things remain price, the offer and customer service. The first two are easy to establish. Knowing that the customer service will be good is more problematical especially if you have no experience of the company.

That is where the “parasites” might be useful. They can recommend because they have experience. But what if they are being paid an override commission to bolster sales? Should you trust them then? If that intermediary is getting more money  as part of a special deal from one airline than an other to sell flights to exactly the same place at the same price, which airline is the intermediary going to promote?

bemused cartoon figure

Do you book directly or via an intermediary? © Dan Sperrin

Some people go to review sites and rely on comments left by others. But we know that, in some cases, people have been paid to do that. Sometimes, people leave negative reviews about rivals or praise their own companies.  I can hire companies in Bangladesh and elsewhere who will deliver me a thousand good reviews placed in a variety of review sites. I can buy spots on websites so that my airline or tour operator comes up first or I can agree a deal with the website that my offer gets “recommended” or referred status. And now that some sites are retailing holidays, accommodation and other things to me, what trust can people have that offers are good value and will provide good customer service?

But can any company in travel exist without intermediaries? Airlines, tour operators and accommodation providers need some organisations to spread the word about them because it is impossible to reach everyone.  Even Google, Microsoft and Facebook cannot reach those that don’t have computers or smart phones.

So until Sir Tim has the ultimate, a database of everyone in the world and their contact details he will need intermediaries to sell his tickets. So will tour operators, hoteliers and almost every other provider. The more you think about what Sir Tim Clark means when he uses the word parasites, the more you realise that almost everybody in travel who isn’t the owner of the product or service you buy is one.

And I must be one too because I provide no airline tickets or holidays but bring news and stories about places you might want to visit. Heck, I might even persuade you to visit a destination or attraction you hadn’t considered!



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