When leading American airlines moved this month to cap travel agents’ commissions on airplane tickets, Jackie Abkion was furious.
“The airlines are trying to get rid of us,” said the Los Angeles-area travel agent. And the commission cap wasn’t her only complaint: Hotels are cutting their payments to agents. Big corporate customers are demanding discounts. And even large retailers such as Costco are writing discount plane tickets for their customers.
“This is what the travel industry has come to,” Abkion said. “It used to be a very prestigious job. Now even grocery stores are issuing tickets.”
Abkion is onto something. Travel agents don’t have the cachet they once had. But don’t blame cutthroat competition among the nation’s airlines.
New technology is breaking the agents’ monopolies on information and distribution. Fare and schedule information is now available in myriad ways. Automated systems are beginning to take over the ticketwriting process. “Intelligent agents,” essentially sophisticated software programs, will soon be able to plan a traveler’s itinerary. Passengers and airlines alike are finding that they just don’t need travel agents anymore.
And although it is small comfort for Abkion and her colleagues, travel agents are hardly alone. They are among millions of “middle men” who are finding themselves disenfranchised by new technology.
Banking, for example, already has been transformed: There’s no reason to have a teller take your money and record a transaction when an ATM can do it as easily. Tens of thousands of tellers have lost their jobs. And local banks, whose strength had been their proximity to customers, find it difficult to compete now that distant, large institutions can maintain local presence via the networked ATM.
Still, few industries provide as stark a study in the vulnerability of the middle man as do travel agencies.
Start with the function of providing flight information. Agents long have had exclusive access to sophisticated reservation systems that could call up the best route and fare. But two years ago, American Airlines gave consumers access to a similar system when it offered Eaasy Sabre over networks such as America Online.
Such access is getting even easier. Motorola’s new pocketbook-sized digital device, the Envoy, hooks into a wireless network that allows a traveler in a cab heading to the airport to find out what flights have seats available.