A Redondo Beach woman recently received a telephone call from a relative in Australia. Some family business required her immediate presence Down Under.
She was horrified to find that the round-trip air fare to Australia would cost about $1,000. Wasn't there a cheaper way to fly?
A travel agent sent the woman to a consolidator. She was offered a Los Angeles-Sydney round-trip ticket for about $600 on a major airline.
Looking for a Catch
Surely, the woman thought, there must be a catch. In her skepticism she was tempted to ignore the deal and simply pay full fare . . . on the same airline.
In the end, she took the discounted seat. Her trip went without a hitch and she returned still not knowing exactly how she had managed to get so lucky.
In short, the consolidator is an operator who is allowed to sell at a discounted rate not advertised by the airline, not even offered by the airline direct to the public . . . only by the consolidator.
But the woman didn't fully understand that explanation. Why, she asked, do airlines allow anybody to undercut their published prices?
It's a good question. So good that even some of the airlines are beginning to question it. Some have gotten themselves into a mess by making too many tickets available to consolidators.
Here is how it works: The airline selects a company with clients and a proven ability to attract customers. It gives that company a special rate to stimulate business.
The airline advertises and promotes its regular fares and the consolidator quietly sells the discounts, thereby helping to fill the planes.
Naturally, if planes were filled all of the time, the airline wouldn't need consolidators; but they're not . . . and they do.
The system works well when it's properly controlled, and it works best, perhaps, where it was originally directed, at the ethnic markets.
Unfortunately, carriers seeking a competitive edge may be cutting more consolidator deals than they really need or can afford. They are finding that consolidators (who aren't allowed to advertise the names of the airlines) sooner or later begin to divert regular revenue from the airlines.
In the last few months the airlines have tried to remedy the situation. Some consolidator arrangements have been canceled, others amended to give the airlines greater control.
Most carriers dealing with consolidators in the U.S.-Europe market, for instance, now have a rule that no ticket can be sold more than 30 days before departure.
Airlines Want Planes Full
The airlines want consolidators to sell only the seats that the lines might not be able to fill. They don't want to go into the peak summer months and find that huge numbers of seats already have been sold at discounted prices.
That restriction alone has dramatically altered the nature of the consolidator business. Vacationers tend to want to book their trips to Europe more than 30 days ahead of time; there may be more fine-tuning of the system.
The airlines are also concerned, as are legitimate consolidators, about the "briefcase brigade," people who have no special fare arrangements with airlines but who nevertheless put out flyers offering low fares, sometimes advertising the fares in newspapers.
Once a prospective passenger takes the bait, the "briefcase" individual goes "shopping" to somebody else.
Of course, the passenger must pay a deposit on the strength of a promise that he or she will soon be told the identity of the airline and the exact cost of the seat, sometimes even the date of departure. The deposit is non-refundable or is subject to a cancellation penalty.
When one of these people go hunting for a seat, he or she marks it up from the price offered by the consolidator. So the customer ends up paying more than necessary.
There really is no easy way to insure that you are dealing with a legitimate consolidator rather than one of the "briefcase brigade."
Generally speaking, a good way to help differentiate is to be direct and ask the consolidator to immediately identify the airline you will be flying with and the departure date. If the operator hesitates or tries to sidestep the issue, look elsewhere. You should be able to find plenty of consolidators who will give you immediate answers.
Consolidators, once viewed by most as "gray area" operators, have become greater participants in the airline-seat distribution system in recent years, mostly because of the fierce competition among carriers.