Travel agents, R.I.P.?

By | September 5th, 1996

More and more travel agents are banging their heads against their soon-to-be obsolete CRS terminals in frustration. It’s hardly a dignified way to die.

The loudest crunch to date was heard this summer, when the Association of Retail Travel Agents and the U.S. Travel Agent Registry begged the U.S. Department of Transportation to freeze the Microsoft-Worldspan plan to sell travel through the Internet. They also petitioned Uncle Sam to reverse the Northwest-KLM action that slashed commissions on cyberspace bookings.

Like jilted lovers, the organizations whined about a conspiracy to “abandon the agency distribution system.”

To regular readers of this publication, news about changes in the agency system is about as surprising as revelations in my story about industrywide widget production. The wired travel world sees the changes as less of a conspiracy and more of a necessity.

I won’t recycle the oft-heard statistics about the industry’s outrageous distribution costs. We know the system’s badly broken and needs a decisive overhaul.

Some of the folks crying foul have secretly asked themselves how long such a profitably parasitic arrangement could last. Commissions. Kickbacks. All-you-can-eat shrimp. What a life it’s been.

As interactive travel begins to consume more of the traditional travel agent pie, it really isn’t much of a shock to hear agent groups getting upset over disappearing perks or dwindling profits. What’s more noteworthy is how easy it’s been to make inroads into their territory so far.

If the American Society of Travel Agents and other groups had behaved as if they were in the throes of a hostile corporate takeover bid when interactive travel emerged and commissions were clipped, things could have turned out much differently. Suppliers might think twice before they cut Internet commissions-or any kind of commissions, for that matter.

Related story:   Smoke and mirrors in cyberspace

Think of it. An army of attorneys could descend upon the likes of American Airlines, which offers e-mail lists, Web sites, and – through the Sabre subsidiary of AMR Corp. – booking engines that bypass agents. Agents could also go after USAir, Northwest Airlines, and Cathay Pacific, all of which have systems that effectively circumvent the retailer. And, of course, there’d be a special place in ASTA’s version of hell for openly anti-agent carriers like Delta and United.

But where are all the fireworks as agencies complain about airline moves into interactive sales? Could it be that travel agents can’t agree on strategy in their final hours? That industry organizations like ASTA are paralyzed by internal politics?

No, those explanations would be too easy, too simple.

Far more likely is that retailer groups can’t think of a compelling reason to keep human agents – or they can’t state the reason articulately. The sweeping statements made by industry pundits that “the days of the travel agent are over” are going totally unchecked.

And so agents are turning to the government for help instead of helping themselves. It’s a failed and shortsighted strategy, the ultimate dividend of which will be extinction.

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