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Travel agents are fighting for their livelihoods. Airlines have twice reduced the commissions they pay to agents, and many agents are instituting service fees - between $5 and $15 per ticket - for domestic airline seats they sell. They are also working to sell more products that pay full commissions, such as package tours, cruises and all-inclusives.

To educate the public about the value of travel agents - and to prepare them to accept service fees - the American Society of Travel Agents has launched a campaign called the ``Air Fair Challenge.' Its purpose is to demonstrate the differences between services routinely provided by agents and those provided by airline ticket reservationists. The implication: Agents are a consumer's ally.We think ASTA's campaign, by illustrating the limitations of airlines' reservation clerks, is very useful. Understandably, it fails to shed similar light on travel agents and the various entanglements and limitations they bring to customer service. To offer a more complete picture, we present the following five questions. (We've used the rhetorical device of questions to illustrate facts about the business, but realize it may be impractical to actually ask them during routine transactions.)

We don't doubt for a minute that travel agents are usually better consumer allies than airline reservationists. But we also believe consumers need to understand how agents operate and are compensated to make informed decisions. In the end, the best consumer allies are consumers themselves, fully informed.

1. For the specified trip, have you checked the offerings of low-cost air carriers (Southwest, Vanguard and others) whose flights are listed on the agency's computerized reservation system but who require agents to place a separate phone call to make the booking? Have you checked different days, times and airports, despite your lack of financial incentive to sell lower-priced travel?

2. For tours, cruises and package deals, have you canvassed the entire market to meet my specific needs, or are you steering me toward a ``preferred supplier'? Most agencies have arrangements with tour operators, airlines, cruise lines and hotels, ranging from simple volume incentives to exclusive-representative deals. Often, agents are powerfully motivated to steer business to them. Sometimes this can result in a good deal on a great product. Other times it can force a bad match.

3. Could you suggest a hotel other than a major chain property? Can you find a mid-priced hotel, near where I plan to spend time, that has some distinctive local charm and comes recommended by paying customers similar to me?

4. How long have you been working as a travel agent, and what training have you had? If I'm going to pay a fee for your service - which I'm happy to do, provided that service saves me money and/or time or in some other way adds value to my trip - I want to know I'm paying for the attention of an experienced, educated professional.

5. If conditions or prices change between now and when I travel - a fare war sends prices down, or a safety issue emerges at my destination - will you call and keep me informed of new options and the cost of any changes? Or does your firm discourage rendering ``non-commission-generating' customer service?

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