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Do airlines have secret agent plan?



Published: Wed, September 5, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Airlines seem to be determined to have you, the traveler, all to themselves. They want very much to cut out the middleman, the travel agent, who has been putting together passengers and airlines for decades.

It's not a very complicated plan. They're just going to squeeze the travel agents out by cutting the commissions they pay until independent agents throw up their hands.

Series of cuts: Since 1995, the airlines have steadily reduced commissions, beginning with a cut from 10 percent of the ticket price to 8 percent. Then airlines capped commissions on domestic flights at $50 and foreign flights at $100. The next reduction came when commissions were capped at 5 percent.

The latest round of cuts began Aug. 17, when American Airlines set a maximum on commissions for domestic flights of $20 for a round-trip ticket, $10 for one-way.

Over a period of a little more than five years, the airlines managed to cut the commission on a $2,000 flight to the West Coast from 10 percent to 1 percent. Not many businesses could survive revenue cuts such as that, which just might be the point.

Getting travel agents out of the picture would give airlines an advantage with customers who are either not inclined or unable to navigate the labyrinth of competing flights, discount fares, special offers, restrictions and such that have made it impossible for any traveler getting on a plane to know that he or she got the best deal.

No one knows: If all the passengers getting on a plane wore signs saying what they paid for their tickets, there would be pandemonium.

While travel agents have been paid their commissions from the airlines, their first responsibility was to their clients. The travel agents' expertise gave their clients an advantage. How many people know what they're entitled to if they're shuffled off a plane in Buffalo or if the airline leaves their luggage in San Francisco? Travel agents know.

A strong network of competing travel agents has worked to the benefit of the traveling public. Agents are hanging on now, but some agencies are almost certain to be lost, giving consumers fewer options. And that's not a good thing.




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