Many passengers who previously appreciated the convenience of travel agent assistance have discovered how helpful the professionals can be when low passenger loads require unexpected airline schedule changes.
Measures taken to reduce the risk of contracting the new coronavirus COVID-19 hit air travel hard in March, and “the airlines’ policies were changing almost hourly at the beginning. And one airline did not necessarily align their policies with another airline’s policies,” said Mona Will, an agent with Grueninger Travel Service.
“We are constantly updated with changes,” she said. “The airlines have done a great job of keeping us informed, but a lot of times there are gray areas that are not specifically stated one way or the other in their policies, and, therefore, we tell someone, ‘Yes, your ticket is refundable, or no, your ticket is not refundable.’
“We have to sit on phones forever and ever to get some answers before we can give people the answer that is the answer at that moment.”
Allegiant Air and all of the commuter airlines feeding the major carrier brands American, Delta and United still fly out of Fort Wayne International Airport, but all of them have reduced their scheduled service there, in line with similar service changes they have made at airports across the country.
The most noticeable local change may have been a suspension of Delta feeder flights to its Atlanta hub. That route will be back next month.
“American’s change has been a whopper too,” Will said. The airline suspended the Fort Wayne-Philadelphia route and reduced the Fort Wayne-Charlotte, North Carolina, route to once daily from twice a day.
“Both of those situations have complicated plans because they’re hubs and people who are flying to the East Coast often connect through Charlotte or Philadelphia to get to East Coast destinations,” she said.
“They definitely are used as connecting flights for international flights — the Caribbean, Mexico, Europe and South America.”
At Advance Travel, owner Alison Finco said it can be very helpful these days for a traveler to work with an agent who thoroughly understands the rules by which carriers operate.
“If you go on a third party like Expedia or something like that, they don’t have all flights in there,” she said. “Our system does have all of the flights, so we know which ones are canceled, and we probably can get it worked out for you faster.
“There are so many that are canceled. Even after you’ve purchased a ticket, your flight may still get canceled. The airlines often refer to it as a schedule change,” she said.
“If it’s a schedule change, they’re not required to give you a refund, only a credit. But if it’s an actual cancellation, they have to give you your money back.”
On most days Advance Travel will have three or four agents working in the office at any given time, with one of them on hold trying to connect over the phone with airline personnel, Finco said.
Inevitably the agent on hold will receive additional questions for the airline as they come in from colleagues helping other passengers, she said.
“Some people are driving because they don’t want to fly because they think they’re going to be on a plane that’s full, but for the most part, that’s not the case. I would fly and wear my mask if I had some place to go,” Finco said.
“The airlines have been very, very cognizant of making sure that everything is clean, and they’ve got new air filtration systems in there and right now a lot of them are keeping the middle seat open,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s going to come back in six months. I think it’s going to be very slow and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a couple of years before it’s up to the capacity that it was last year,” she said. “But people are going to want to take those trips that they missed, and I think they’re going to fly.”
At FWA, travelers have been very understanding and adaptable, given the circumstances, Scott Hinderman, executive director of airports for the Fort Wayne Allen County Airport Authority, said in an email.
“Passengers who still needed to travel during the height of COVID-related travel restrictions and airline cancellations were able to be rebooked by their airline,” he said.
“Passengers who needed to cancel or change their travel plans have been able to do so with all four of the airlines that serve FWA relaxing and waving change fees through at least June 30,” Hinderman said.
“While Delta had paused non-stop service to Atlanta, they have committed to bringing back one flight per day on that route in July, and we anticipate additional frequency as passengers continue to come back to flying.”