Q&A: Tracking the Long-Term Impact of Unused Tickets

As countries begin the process of safely easing travel restrictions, experts continue to theorize how long the spread of COVID-19 will last and when business travel will fully resume. While those predictions are still forming, the pandemic has led to at least one measurable travel priority for both the immediate now and the future: unused tickets.

Even as other areas of travel remain in flux, the conversation surrounding unused tickets has less to do with future uncertainties and more to do with how present challenges will shape the next two years of travel and beyond. To tackle the logistics behind how Travel Management Companies (TMCs) are managing an increasingly complex pool of waivers and vouchers, we’ve compiled a Q&A below with Direct Travel’s Executive Vice President of Customer Experience, Christine Sikes.

The pandemic has redefined the need for corporate travel processes and tools. From an operational perspective, what did the unused ticket process look like before COVID-19?

As an industry, we’ve already moved on to talking about the “new normal.” Before, our unused ticket management system would automatically refund an unused ticket or store it in a database for future travel, which could then be presented for availability to an agent. If booking online, automatic scans in the GDS (Global Distribution System) would ensure you could apply the credit and decrease the cost of your new ticket. The requirement for accuracy, efficiency and due diligence is of extreme importance to the daily activities of TMCs. Provided the expiration date is respected, these could be exchanged for the value of future tickets. Otherwise, clients lose the value of the tickets altogether, which represents a substantial financial liability for both the TMC and its clients.

How is that different now with the “new normal”?

We’re still using the same tools and automating the process for efficiency, but there are many more layers we have to apply depending on the carrier. With more than 400 airlines, we’re monitoring a wide range of change policies, voucher credit guidelines, and fee waivers.

With such a broad scope of policies, how does it vary airline to airline?

Some airlines are only giving vouchers and have to be contacted directly rather than through GDS. That requires a larger time investment and makes it much harder to apply tracking robotics. After the first travel restrictions were announced, we had hundreds of calls from clients within an hour, which meant contacting each carrier individually every time. Fortunately, not all carriers required direct contact and we are able to assist clients more efficiently.

What has been Direct Travel’s approach to managing such a daunting task?

We’ve augmented our existing systems to ensure processes and standards that will work now as well as post-pandemic. Any changes you make now will have to accommodate deviations in the future as individual carriers continue to update their policies. Your system also needs to be of the scale and size to continue the robotics and keep it efficient. Direct Travel has excelled in that regard, however not all TMCs have the staff expertise or systems in place to make this manner effective.

The number of trip cancellations has leveled off somewhat. How will managing unused tickets remain a priority for corporate travel programs as they ramp up for the future?

As the avalanche of inquiries, changes, and waivers subsides, we’ll still be dealing with ticket credits and vouchers for the next two years and beyond. Depending on your business travel program, you have to evaluate what makes sense from a budgetary perspective. Some might want to use their credits as soon as they can, others might prioritize keeping their unused tickets consistent within the project budget for which they were originally allocated. Even then, you may have different strategies for applying your credits, such as how you approach high-value tickets for international flights versus low-value tickets for short domestic legs. There is also the risk of retaining the value of unused ticket credits associated with furloughed or non-active employees who may take longer to return to work or may not return at all.

Before this pandemic started to reshape the conversation around travel, NDC (New Distribution Capability) was a main focus area for airlines. Is that shifting in response?

As airlines, agencies, and aggregators slash costs—including rethinking non-critical projects—the industry's pace of New Distribution Capability development and deployment has certainly slowed. It's unclear the pace at which airlines will continue to pursue their NDC strategies given limited cash flow and investment capabilities for many, if not all, airlines.

How does this potential delay in development affect travelers and their TMCs?

When the first wave of flights cancellations hit, many supplier systems could not keep up with the volume of change/cancel requests in order to accurately process and reflect the current status of a ticket. If action is taken outside of the TMC or GDS, we don’t have a line of sight into what kind of customer service is being offered, nor are we able to ensure duty of care as required by many corporations. This reinforces and heightens the importance of downstream service aspects that matter beyond the benefits of retail and marketing that NDC provides for. At the same time, it provides a carrot to many airlines in terms of lower costs and the need to increase automation for changes and corresponding communications on a larger scale.

You mentioned the industry is now looking at a two-year timeline for tickets and potentially longer depending on the airline. What tips or advice can you give to businesses for the long-term management of their unused tickets?

Businesses cannot afford to rely on the same systems they’ve previously used if they failed them during this critical time and so must adapt. Develop a repeatable process around aggregating and reconciling unused tickets to ensure consistent application regardless of booking channel. Enlist a TMC and robotics to help and—although I’m admittedly a bit biased in this regard—our team at Direct Travel has the tools and know-how to take you through the steps from start to finish.

If you’re using multiple TMCs, you may want to consider consolidating your spend so that you’re applying consistent technology and practices across the globe rather than chasing partners and processes. You may also use this an opportunity to bundle credits to a corporate-named UATP card where large dollar volumes exist within a single carrier, which will ensure the credits stay with your company rather than the individual traveler. Aspects you will need to consider include access to reports, expiry notification emails, integration with online booking tools, profile management, partial ticket calculations, and a web based interface to facilitate these functions. You can always contact us if you have questions about your managing your unused tickets.