Navigant computer programs allow employees of client companies to book their own trips online, which also saves Navigant money by reducing the number of agents it needs. Navigant services range from accounting and analysis of travel costs to alerting managers if someone buys a more expensive ticket to get frequent-flier miles.
"Almost everybody is predicting that airline commissions will go to zero in the near future," says David Buskirk, president of the regional office. "So we provide the services, charge customers fees, and they make the determination if we're adding enough value to support the costs."
With domestic commissions generally cut in half to 5% already, most agents charge at least $10 to issue a ticket. International commissions remain higher, and airlines still pay bonuses to agents who send them large amounts of business. Even so, commissions fell from $6.6 billion in 1997 to $5.7 billion last year, according to Airlines Reporting Corp., a clearinghouse for ticket sales.
To survive, agents work every angle, and that puts them increasingly at odds with the carriers.
Many agents exploit fare disparities through such tricks as providing an extra leg to a trip that lowers the cost but doesn't have to be used.
Using computer programs to monitor travelers, airlines have penalized agencies that sell restricted tickets for such uses, contending the practices violate the carriers' rules.
Fighting back, Westways World Travel Inc., a three-person Santa Monica agency, has filed a racketeering suit in federal court in Los Angeles contending that American Airlines routinely issues such tickets itself over the telephone and on its Internet site.
The carrier is attacking agents "for the express purpose of extorting money and/or putting travel agencies out of business," the suit alleges.
American has denied the allegations and has asked the court to dismiss the suit.
In perhaps the biggest threat yet to the agents, 30 carriers are developing a $100-million online reservation system on which they plan to post joint schedules and fares. The airlines call the site "T2"--a code, the agencies say, for Travelocity Terminator.
"The finishing torpedo is in the tube, and it's this joint Web site," says Paul Ruden, an official with the travel agents trade group.
Ruden predicts the site will offer bargains unavailable anywhere else, and his group has asked the Justice Department to investigate the carriers for antitrust violations.
Some agents are even protesting a California state tourism Web site with links to hotels. They contend public funds are being used to steer consumers directly to lodgings, undermining the agents' business. State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Daly City) has proposed a ban on the Web links to the private sector.
At Golden West Travel, Dekker says he is too busy to worry about such matters. The phones ring off the hook, and he is looking for a bigger office so he can add two agents to his seven-agent staff.
The agency, started by his father, is now 37 years old--two years older than Dekker. He is trying to land a corporate account that would take his annual bookings from $8 million to $14 million.
"Travel agencies are like gas stations--there's one on every corner," Dekker says. "But they're also like a barber: Once you find a good one, you never leave."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Ups and Downs of Travel
Airline ticket spending has soared.
1991: $47.9 billion
Online travel purchases are on course to take off.
1999: $9.4 billion
2003: $40.7 billion (estimated)
Old-style travel agencies* are dwindling.
Commissions from airlines have nose-dived.
*Including single-office retail agencies,
home and branch locations
** 2000 figure is year to date.
Source: Airlines Reporting Corp., Forrester Research Inc.