Arnie WeissmannThe effort by American Express to charge travel agents to serve Platinum and Centurion card members for their card-related travel programs struck an emotional chord with agents not heard since airlines announced the first commission caps.

Now, as then, agents feel that entities achieving success on their backs decided that, to get to the next level, it was necessary for a knife to be inserted into those same backs.

Though the flap seems to be nearing a resolution, one has to ask: Should agents have been surprised when Amexs card and consumer travel divisions started working in concert? 

The answer is yes. Agents had a right to feel betrayed. There had been, until the fee announcement was made, a perception in the agency community that there was a wall between the card and travel divisions -- a separation of church and state, so to speak.

This presumed separation enabled agents to work in good faith with the card side while competing with the consumer travel network.

The system seemed to benefit both sides -- agents supported the card organization, keeping application forms on their desks and selling the benefits of the Platinum and Centurion programs. Agents didnt worry much that the Amex card folks would tilt the playing field toward Amex-branded agencies.

And so, perhaps the most profound implication of recent events is not the single action that Amex had proposed, but what appears to be a larger strategic decision to break down the wall of separation between the card and travel divisions.

If this is the case, Amex has picked the right new person to lead the travel side -- Lynne Biggar comes to the travel network after 12 years with the consumer card division.

But it remains a bit bewildering that Amex took the risk of its original take-it-or-leave-it proposal. The potential upside didnt seem worth the potential downside -- a view confirmed by the companys acceptance of the need for some changes.

Agency marketing organization Virtuoso advised its members not to sign up for the American Express programs early-bird date of Dec. 31 (agencies signing up by then would qualify for discounted rates) pending negotiations.

Virtuoso had shown it has a taste for conflict with large companies. And Virtuosos feud with IAC/InterActiveCorp last year showed that it wont hesitate to bring a feud into the public arena.

If agents as a whole were to say no to the fees, not only would Amex lose its projected fee income, but volume would have gone down, meaning fewer card fees from merchants. 

Amex may have initially calculated that there is little or no risk, that if non-Amex agencies wont service Platinum and Centurion clients, Amex branded agencies will pick up the business.

It may have believed that the combination of church and state was a winning formula.

Its my observation, however, that theocracies tend to move toward arrogance and isolation, and that citizens (or members?) tend not to benefit when they lose freedom of choice.


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