By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
WARREN -- Felicia Mooney remembers when a travel agent selling a $2,000 round-trip airline ticket had cause to celebrate.
Not many years ago, the manager of LaMar VIP Travel Services in Warren recalled, airlines paid a 10-percent commission on tickets, so a $2,000 ticket meant $200 for the agent.
But no more.
Mooney said the major airlines have cut their commissions to travel agents several times over the past few years. Now most carriers have capped their payments at $10 for a one-way ticket and $20 for a round-trip, no matter how large the fare.
That means the $2,000 sale that once prompted cheers and dinner reservations now brings the seller a $20 bill.
Taking a stand: LaMar VIP joined other agency members of the American Association of Travel Agents that closed their doors from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday as part of a nationwide effort to inform the public of the airlines' action and the impact on their industry. Mooney said representatives from LaMar also planned to visit the office of U.S. Rep. James Traficant Jr. of Poland, D-17th, to advise him of the problem.
"Travel agents are independent, so we can shop for the best service and the best price for our customers," Mooney said. "Consumers are the ones who will suffer the most from these cuts because some travel agencies are going to say it's not worth it to keep selling airline tickets.
"When that happens, consumers will lose the valuable, independent service that travel agents provide."
Ron Chick, who owns Holiday Travel & amp; Cruises in Youngstown, said he did not participate in the protest but agrees that the lower commissions are a problem, especially for agencies that deal primarily with corporate customers.
Agencies like his which focus more on vacation business are hurt less because they also generate income from booking tours and cruises, he said.
Chick said that airlines will eventually eliminate all ticket commissions to agents, even though travel agents sell about 80 percent of the air travel tickets sold.
"It will boil down to which agencies want to offer ticket sales as a service," he said. "But how many services can you give without eating?"
One view: Chuck Petzinger, who operates four Pan Atlas Travel Services offices in Youngstown, Boardman and Warren, said travel agents who closed for two hours were "shooting themselves in the foot" by making their services unavailable to customers.
Instead, he argued, travel agencies must get out the message that their services are valuable.
Petzinger said travelers who buy tickets and make reservations over the Internet soon discover the advantage of an agency's involvement because it's difficult or impossible to solve a problem or make a change when a purchase is made on the Web. "And we can almost always equal or better the rate offered on the Internet," he said.
Mary Wellman, an owner of Plaza Travel with offices in Hermitage and Niles, said the travel agent stands up for the consumer, and the airlines' commission cuts are threatening that service. "I like the slogan the AATA uses: 'Without a travel agent, you're on your own,'" she said. "I know it sounds a little corny, but that's our battle cry."
If the airlines can discourage agents from shopping for tickets by taking away the financial incentives, she warned, consumers will be forced to order tickets from the airlines directly at whatever price they choose to charge.
Wellman said most travel agencies have added a service fee for ticket orders, and some may be forced to increase that fee to offset the carriers' decision to cut commissions. Like Chick, she predicted airlines eventually will eliminate commissions.