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'Thank You for Choosing Us and Have a Pleasant Fight' : Airlines: It helps to know where your booking agent stands in the escalating feud with major air carriers.

March 12, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

The fallout continues in the war between this country's major airlines and the travel agents who sell most of those airlines' tickets. Since airlines began cutting their commission fees to agents, travel agencies have been forecasting new service fees to customers, agents have been suing airlines, airlines have been suing agents, and hotels, cruise lines and Amtrak have been piping up to profess their enduring affection (and enduring commission rates) for agents.

Many of these aftershocks have little direct effect on the traveling public. But a traveler may save money and time by understanding the very different roles that Delta Airlines and the American Automobile Assn. have taken in this melodrama.

Delta started the commission-cutting fad last month. Abandoning an across-the-board 10% commission structure, it set commission limits of $50 on round-trip domestic tickets and $25 on one-way domestic tickets--a move that could cut income to the nation's travel agencies by 20%-40%, depending on who's estimating.

Within days of Delta's move, most of the other major carriers followed suit. But since Delta was first, Delta is the target of agent whispers about retribution. A recent issue of the travel agents' trade publication Travel Weekly featured on its cover a photo of a Kansas travel agent setting fire to Delta documents. And a Delta spokesman acknowledges that in its efforts to discourage industrial sabotage, it has filed lawsuits against two travel agencies.

"We're certainly monitoring the situation," said Delta spokesman Clay McConnell. He adds that Delta believes that "the vast majority of travel agents are very professional, and being professional means looking out for your customers' interest."

But airline prices are often identical, and several travel agents, requesting anonymity, have told me that they aren't doing Delta any favors. To hear those agents tell it, Delta is trying to cover up its mismanagement by squeezing to death thousands of small businesses across the country.

To hear Delta tell it, the airline is trying to control costs while keeping prices down, after losing about $1.5 billion over the last three fiscal years.

The bottom line is that your travel agent may well be looking for reasons to deny Delta business. If you're sympathetic with the agents' plight (and you don't have all your frequent-flier miles with Delta), you may want to instruct your agent to bypass Delta. On the other hand, if you want to keep your options open and be sure that Delta gets a fair shake when your itinerary is being sorted out, this is the time to make that clear to your agent.

Delta took in $11.2 billion in passenger revenues in 1994, about 80% of that via travel agents. Since the cap announcement, McConnell said, he is unaware of any "significant changes" in Delta's post-cap ticket sales. But specific figures won't be publicly available for comparison until April 27 when the company discloses its first-quarter earnings.

While Delta has been making enemies, the Automobile Assn. of America has been trying to make friends. At least for now, AAA is bucking the trend among major agencies and resisting the idea of charging leisure travelers "service fees."

Though many travelers think of the auto club as a place to get maps and call for emergency road service, the association has grown to include 859 U.S. travel agency offices, which usually operate as part of large auto club offices, and which made $926.5 million in domestic air bookings last year, most of them for leisure travel. In describing the organization's plans to shield its 37 million members (who pay $24-$69 in yearly dues) from service fees, AAA spokeswoman Jill Mross said the group's sense of obligation to its members was a factor. But Mross also noted that the AAA position is not etched in stone, and that its affiliate groups have considerable autonomy. "Who knows what's going to happen in a couple of months" she said.

At AAA's regional affiliate here, the Auto Club of Southern California, reservationists at the club's toll-free Airline Express desk report a 25% increase in calls beginning in late February.

Meanwhile, three other major travel agencies have set fee structures:

American Express (which operates more than two dozen retail travel agency offices in California) on March 6 started charging individual travelers $20 each to book domestic air tickets costing less than $300, $10 to reissue a domestic ticket, $10 for overnight mail service and $5 for second-day airmail delivery. Those who pay the $20 fee receive certificates for $20 credit toward a package tour or cruise. (The $20 fee is waived when more than one ticket is purchased in a single transaction of more than $500.)

Starting April 1, Carlson Wagonlit Travel (more than 100 California offices) will impose a $15 fee on individual customers who make airline-ticket-only purchases. Those who pay the fee will receive a $25 certificate toward a cruise or package tour. The agency will allow those travelers one free ticket reissue; further changes will cost $15, as will cancellations.

Rosenbluth International (about 110 California offices) on March 5 started charging leisure-travel customers a $10 fee for booking airline tickets, $10 for ticket reissues, $20 for hotel-only bookings and $50 for planning independent travel.

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