was talking with ASTA Staff Executive Vice President and COO Bill Maloney around noon last Thursday, both of us unaware that in two hours, Delta would be cutting base commissions to zero.

It was a wide-ranging discussion -- Bill was in an expansive mood. We talked about how technology has changed the lives of travel agents. How the Society planned to face the challenges of fortifying and diversifying ASTA's membership base. How he was exploring ways of reaching out to suppliers and identifying spheres of mutual interest instead of focusing on areas of friction.

Some of the statements he made seemed, just two hours later, both ironic and prophetic.

"I'm sure there are some airlines who can imagine a world without travel agents," he told me, "but I think there's a role for us. We have a meaningful place at the table."

Indeed, agents still do have a meaningful place at the table.

And even if, as you read this, other airlines have followed Delta's lead, that won't change.

To be frank, any agent who didn't see zero base pay coming had his or her head in the sand. The question of zero base commissions was never "if," but "when." Agents were given notice seven years ago that airlines had them in their targets. Delta led the way then as now.

Maloney told me that "one of the most frustrating aspects of my job is to engage in dialogue with people whose mindset is locked in the past. When you talk about the future, their only retort is, 'Your job is to bring back the old days.' And I can't. No one can.

"I've been thinking about how to express this to people diplomatically, and I've come up with a crude analogy. It goes like this:

"A herd mentality is elemental to all animals, and, of course, we're animals, too. It's natural for like kinds of creatures to come together in God's great world to achieve common goals. They may do it for any number of reasons: to hunt, to travel, or for social purposes.

"In times of stress, animals will often herd together in a circle and face outwards," Maloney continued.

"The problem is that when this happens, some are looking forward and some are looking backwards.

"The ones who insist on looking backwards may well be a lost cause. The key challenge is to get those looking sideways to come forward with the rest.

"We have an emotional commitment to protect all of the herd, and we've sometimes let the lowest common denominator set the agenda.

"By listening to the slowest and weakest, we've sometimes given the impression that we're resisters of change rather than leaders."

Maloney's analogy is apt.

It's not unnatural to mourn what is lost, but after a certain point, energy spent longing for the past detracts from one's ability to move forward.

Agents will need every bit of their creative power to meet the challenges of the future.

Now is the time for agent leaders to marshal the best and the brightest to work for the improvement of all.

Don't distract those working for improvement with reproaches that they weren't strong enough to stop the commission caps and cuts.

No one could have stopped them.

In fact, an argument could be made that organized travel agents in the U.S. succeeded in delaying the inevitable and put millions of commission dollars in agents' pockets. Zero base pay hit the U.K. two years ago, and every month that passed without its hitting our shores came as a surprise to me.

As Maloney said, agents will always have a place at the table.

The shape of the table and the menu has changed, but it's far better to experiment with new dishes than to try to survive by living off yesterday's scraps.


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