By Harry Keaney
As the popularity of the Internet takes off, travel agents, it seems, may be among the victims of the back-blast.
Last week, agents in the U.S. reacted angrily to offers by a number of airlines of additional discounts on tickets booked over the carriers’ own web sites.
Aer Lingus is also exploring the possibility of selling tickets over the Internet, though not necessarily at a discount.
"No matter how the airlines dance around it, this is an attempt to put travel agents out of business," John Hawks, president of the Association of Retail Travel Agents in Lexington, Ky., said.
Dina Long, of the American Society of Travel Agents, in Alexandria, Va., said that "all fares should be available to all travelers."
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"We’re not trying to put anybody out of business," Dave Swierenga, economist for the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, said. "But now we have a new technology that bypasses a big part of the labor component of writing tickets, and obviously that’s hard for agents to deal with. This is simply a rational business decision in a world that’s changing, and travel agents need to recognize that the ticket-writing function can now be done more simply by technology."
In a speech in Minneapolis last month, Delta executive Vince Caminiti said it costs his airline "up to 400 percent more to book and deliver a ticket using the traditional processes."
At present, Aer Lingus’s web page provides information only but, said spokesman Brian Murphy, "we’re certainly exploring alternative methods of distribution."
But Murphy added: "We have no intention of excluding agents as a key distributor."
He said the first thing is to figure out a way of making the product available through the Web site, and not necessarily at a discount.
He also added that Aer Lingus hadn’t capped commissions to agents.
Manhattan-based Lismore Travel’s Kathy Gorman, of the Irish Travel Agents Association, said association’s members would certainly be concerned about the move to sell tickets over the Internet. She said this would cut commissions which "is our bread and butter."
She added that if commissions were cut, it would lead to cutbacks in agents’ offices. So far, she said, a lot of agents’ customers hadn’t gone on the Internet and she hoped consumers would realize that agents offer a service, such as arranging packages, that individuals may not be able to obtain.