Air Force ends leisure travel contract with SATO

By CHARLIE REED | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 8, 2012

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Planning a vacation? Booking a trip at the local Air Force base may not be an option right now.

In September, the Air Force ended its 11-year-old leisure travel contract with CWTSato Travel, which the service paid to book airlines tickets, vacations packages and cruises for active-duty troops, civilian personnel and other military ID card holders.

On-base leisure travel services aim to provide the community with personal service not found online, and with military discounts whenever possible. Under the CWTSato contract, customers got the personal touch but not always the best deal.

Off-base agencies “could get rates we couldn’t get,” said Henry “Ziggy” Bazzichi, community services flight chief at Yokota Air Base. They could offer “good, if not better, deals than we do,” he said.

Using off-base agencies can be challenging, especially if there is a language issue, and Internet travel web sites generally don’t offer personal customer service, which is why the 40 bases affected by the cancellation of the CWTSato contract must find a way to still offer it.

The bases have two choices: Establish an in-house travel agency, or use a concessionaire contract that enables the Air Force to get a cut of the sales. Both options will allow the Air Force to generate profit from booking leisure travel, rather than pay a travel agency to provide the same service, according to Mike Dickerson, spokesman for the Air Force Personnel Center in Texas, which manages the service’s leisure travel program.

Even though growing numbers of people turn to the Internet when making travel plans, many Air Force customers still prefer to book in person, Dickerson said.

“Talking to a ‘live’ person enhances the travelers’ confidence in making the purchase, especially with higher-cost trips or extensive travel,” he said. “The knowledge that our travel agents provide are perceived as a value by our customers and preferable to online booking.”

Yokota chose to forgo creating an in-house travel agency, putting a contract out for bid in October. A new leisure travel office should be in place by April, Bazzichi said.

For now, on-base customers are being directed to nearby Navy and Army bases that offer leisure travel service. They can also use the Joint Base San Antonio booking website, JBSATravel.com, Dickerson said.

The now-defunct CWTSato contract was funded through Air Force Morale, Welfare and Recreation profits — funds generated by on-base businesses — but never made money itself, Dickerson said in an email to Stars and Stripes.

The Defense Department’s 2011 contract with CWTSato was for $520,000, which gave bases access to the travel reservation system, 24/7 help desk, program oversight, training and marketing, Dickerson said.

Before the airlines stopped paying commission on tickets several years ago, the Air Force was able to make some profit from the operation, officials said. But the contract was not renewed this year because “it was no longer cost-effective,” Dickerson said.

CWTSato will continue to book official-duty travel for the Defense Department. The company, a division of the German Carlson Wagonlit Travel, handles $2.3 billion worth of airline sales annually for the U.S. government, according to the company’s website.


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