The City of Houston halted its use of a travel agency for employee travel, with the mayor reportedly calling travel agency services when compared with electronic booking an "artifact of early days."
News of the dispute comes from Texas Watchdog, which conducted an investigation of city records and found that over several years the city paid some $90,000 to Advantage Travel, which is affiliated with American Express, with much of the charges coming from $35 service fees on air travel.
Texas Watchdog says the city had no contract with the agency, and paid service fees on flights even when the agency processed flight cancellations or refunds.
The crux of the dispute is that Texas Watchdog claims the city wasted money and overpaid for these travel agency services when the city could have had employees booking their flights online.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker halted the use of the agency's services and is reviewing the whole situation.
“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.”
Advantage Travel argued that the city, which has been using the agency's services for a decade, is being short-sighted.
Advantage Travel Vice President Carol Embesi said by using the agency the city saved the expense of employing an in-house travel manager, and benefitted from the fact that travel agents know how to find low fares more skillfully than do city employees.
"I think the city saves in the long run," Embesi said.
Many travel agencies, of course, do not receive any airline commission when booking flights for clients so they charge their customers service fees.
Houston will review the situation and decide whether a corporate booking tool or a traditional travel agency will handle government employee travel in the future.