here are three entities administering the magic eight-digit numbers that bestow legitimacy upon sellers of travel: IATA, ARC and CLIA. For IATA and ARC, assigning numbers has evolved into something of a side business.

The travel agent identification card issued by Iatan, IATA's U.S. division, brings in approximately $3.1 million of revenue annually, and Iatan's lists of basic agency data -- names, addresses, identifying numbers -- also are rented to suppliers for licenses that range from $1,224 to $16,599 each per year.

In addition to IATA-endorsed agencies, its rental list includes an alphabet soup of travel-seller categories for which IATA creates special eight-digit numbers: TIDS (for non-U.S. agencies), TRUE (distributed by OSSN and ARTA), Travelsellers (distributed by ASTA) and TSI (for agents who don't hold air ticket stock).

Then there's ARC. ARC used to allow IATA to include data from ARC-accredited agencies in its rental lists but recently pulled the information out. As a result, suppliers compiling a database of U.S. agencies must now rent lists from both organizations. And because there is significant overlap on the lists, suppliers are grumbling.

"When I subtracted the satellite ticket printers and overlapping IATA agencies from ARC's list, I found I'm paying a $900 initiation fee and about $3,600 a year for only 4,800 nonduplicated locations," one supplier told me. To describe how deep his disappointment was, he used a version of language heard recently from the vice president on the Senate floor.

An ARC spokesman said that while "revenue is one concern," data decisions are driven by "our interactions with agencies." He also said ARC has an initiative under way called ARC-RSP, which, from the description, will compete with IATA's nonair categories.

It's interesting that two airline-owned entities, ARC and IATA, have become the primary arbiters of numbers that bestow legitimacy to sellers of travel during a time when air sales are decreasing in importance to agents. They are the primary arbiters, but they are not sole arbiters. There is CLIA.

Cruise lines and tour operators have more than a passing interest in agent ID numbers. They not only help sort out who qualifies for fams and discounts but who is entitled to commissions.

CLIA's Executive Director, Bob Sharak, notes that, at the same time the number of IATA and ARC locations is shrinking, CLIA locations have stabilized and are even expected to grow slightly this year.

It could certainly be argued that the commission-paying members of CLIA, the USTOA and the NTA represent the future for travel sellers. So I asked Sharak if he would consider using CLIA's 16,000 agency locations as a springboard for a database that might better serve the interests of the cruise and tour segments.

After commenting that data maintenance can be a "holy nightmare," he said, "Do I want to be in the ID-card business? No. But are we in it? Yes. Our first priorities are promotion, training and support for cruise lines. In the end, we'll do what's best for our members and the industry."

This is a classic nondenial denial. If IATA and ARC want to protect their turf, they'll want to tread forward carefully -- or, at the very least, be careful not to tread too hard on other suppliers' toes.

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