In 2010, clouds of ash floated over Europe following the eruption of a volcano in Iceland. The poor visibility left many airlines grounded and passengers wondering where to turn.
It was a moment when travel agencies — which appear less relevant in the era of online bookings — could demonstrate their value.
"The ash clouds were drifting east and all flights were canceled, but we were able to redirect people," said Jay Ellenby, 55, president and CEO of Safe Harbors Business Travel since 1990. "They were trying to get back to the U.S. In some cases, we got them on a train to airports that were open in other parts of Europe."
In October, Ellenby was elected president of the American Society of Travel Agents, an organization that advocates for the profession.
The clients of his Bel Air-based agency include large universities, high-tech firms, nonprofits and health care companies. Safe Harbors' 15 employees in Bel Air are among about 52 staff members around the country, including in Florida, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.
And then there is the perpetual challenge of finding the lowest airline fares. Customers may believe they are seeing all their options on travel websites, but some sites exclude certain airlines for various reasons.
"The agents know how to work with the faring and identify the lowest costs," Ellenby said.
The problem for some travelers, he said, is that "they don't know what they don't know."
One more tip: If an airline cancels a flight, Ellenby said he quickly gets on his phone.
"If I bought directly from the airline, I'm not going to wait in line," he said. "I am not looking at that guy's head in front of me."