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Airlines Discourage Bargain Hunts : Travel Agencies Face Hefty Fees to Use New Computer Programs


Sabre is charging agencies that exceed 105 hits for each reservation. Apollo initially proposed to a 66 keystroke limit, travel agents said, but is now allowing up to 100 hits. The reservation systems are charging between a cent and a cent-and-a-half for each electronic inquiry over the limit.

Not every agent finds the new limits easy to live with. Boston-based Woodside Travel said some agents in highly competitive markets, such as Los Angeles, exceed the new keystroke thresholds manually because there are so many airlines to check.

"Our reaction was, what does Sabre have to complain about?" Executive Vice President Nancy Barros asked. "It's like, excuse me. . . ."

Barros said that after she protested, Sabre agreed to take a look at the limit.

The reservation systems say their limits aren't hurting the travel agencies. A spokeswoman for Sabre said only two dozen of the 14,000 travel agencies on Sabre's network got bills in excess of $50. An Apollo spokesman said the reservation system hasn't billed anyone yet and is easing the new limits in as it renegotiates contracts with travel agencies.

Travel agencies say they've taken steps to avoid hefty fees.

Associated Travel developed what it calls a "stealth" version of its original software that is capable of taking an electronic picture of the information in the airline reservation system. Associated's computer then scans the electronic copy for bargains. By using this technique, the agency immediately reduced the number of hits to 112 from 200. Though it may still pay a fee, it is less than the $300,000 it stood to pay without the revised software.

Other agencies have taken different approaches. Woodside Travel said it now looks for aisle or window seats less often. USTravel says it now conducts most of its searches at night, when fees are lower and when most fare changes are made.

"We don't think (American's) Sabre is out to destroy our program," Woodside's Barros said. "We think they would like to control how we use it."

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