A Baffling Conclusion

Robert Carlsen, Executive Editor The National Commission to Ensure Consumer Information and Choice in the Airline Industry released its final report and found that, yep, travel agencies have been severely harmed by the airlines and the Internet; but, nope, they ain’t suggesting anything to do about it. Th

By: Robert Carlsen, Executive Editor

The National Commission to Ensure Consumer Information and Choice in the Airline Industry released its final report and found that, yep, travel agencies have been severely harmed by the airlines and the Internet; but, nope, they ain’t suggesting anything to do about it. Then, ASTA sends out a press release “applauding” the results. Did I miss something here? Maybe it was in the fine print.

Essentially, Congress empowered this commission to study: whether the financial condition of travel agents is declining and, if so, its effect on consumers; and whether there are impediments to obtaining information about airline industry services and products, and, if so, the effects of such impediments on travel agents, online distributors and consumers. Eight commissioners including two travel agents and ASTA’s Paul Ruden interviewed 33 witnesses in four hearings. I went to the one in San Francisco, where witnesses said agencies should have access to all fares, yada, yada, yada.

Among the commission’s findings: The elimination of airline commissions contributed to the decline of the number of travel agencies (more than one-third have disappeared since the peak of 24,000 in 1994). Duh!; the sharp reductions in travel spending tied to the recession and post-Sept. 11 environment (this was obviously the key component, in my view); the airlines’ strategy of encouraging travelers to bypass agents and book on their own Web sites and Orbitz. The commission concluded that, although travel agents are important for unbiased information and recommendations, consumers nonetheless are a click away from having more travel information than ever before. So, having fewer travel agents doesn’t affect consumers.

As commission chairman David Winstead, a lawyer, said in the conclusion of the report: “We were seriously concerned with the financial health of the travel agency industry, but we were unable to recommend new legislation or regulations that would reverse the trend toward industry consolidation.”

Fine. Great. You feel better already, don’t you? That conclusion was almost worth all the taxpayer expense.

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