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
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
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
"I've been thinking about how to express this to people
diplomatically, and I've come up with a crude analogy. It goes like
"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
"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
"By listening to the slowest and weakest, we've sometimes given
the impression that we're resisters of change rather than
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
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
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.