City of Houston drops travel firm after Texas Watchdog investigation

By   /   October 4, 2010  /   News  /   No Comments

By Steve Miller

The Houston travel agency had an enviable arrangement, not bound by a contract and making big bucks from $35 fees tacked on to every ticket. Parker says the city should be booking its own tickets online.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker has halted the use of a Houston travel agency that added a $35 fee to every flight booked over the past several years, boosting travel costs by tens of thousands of dollars in a five-year span.

The move comes after an investigation by Texas Watchdog, which has found that the city paid more than $90,000 in booking fees to Advantage Travel, even though the firm had no contract.

The levy in some cases increased the cost of an airfare by 60 percent or more in an age when most business and leisure travelers book flights themselves through price-comparison websites like Expedia, a review of records from July 2005 to July 2010 shows.

“I will suggest that we reconsider our entire travel process,” Parker said. “There is no use to use [a travel agency] any more with electronic ticketing. We should be booking our own flights.”

The mayor said she was “mystified” by the use of any travel agency for city business, adding that it is an “artifact of early days.”

The move is another in Parker’s efforts to exercise fiscal stewardship. Since she took office in January, the city has trimmed library hours, increased the employee-paid portion of health insurance premiums and increased water rates.

Dropping the travel agency will end up costing the city more, said Advantage Vice President Carol Embesi, who said that rank-and-file employees often don’t know the tricks to getting better fares, and some will game the system in order to get upgrades.

“I think the taxpayer saves in the long run,” Embesi said of her agency’s services. Embesi and city officials did not know how long the agency had been on board, but Embesi said it was at least 10 years. There was no bidding process to secure Advantage’s services, Embesi said.

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