It should come as no surprise to the travel agent community that major airlines -- in this instance, United, Delta, Northwest and Continental -- have joined forces to plan a unified and potentially dominant presence on the Internet.

The intention of the airlines -- and many other suppliers, as well -- to obviate the role of the trade by maximizing the reciprocal link between seller and buyer through the Web has been clear for some time.

Although the four carriers apparently plan to maintain their individual Net sites, they say their joint venture -- targeted to begin operating in the first half of next year -- will offer consumers the opportunity to comparison shop for Web-only discount fares and travel packages in concert with cooperating hotel, car rental and cruise companies.

All this, please note, under one virtual roof.

With such traditional Net travel sites as Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline (by "traditional" we mean they've been around since yesterday) already competing for your clients' attention, it is a foregone conclusion that this new entity will be supported by an advertising budget of federal proportions.

Perhaps that is where the immediate threat to the trade resides.

Just the other day, in fact, consumer press reporters told delegates to the PhoCusWright Live99 conference in Miami that their readers distrust and are confused by the jumble of travel sites on the Web.

And now we have another player looming on the horizon, one comprising entities with deep enough pockets and big enough brand names to cut through the clutter.

How long, we wonder, can the buying public resist the blandishments of well-heeled suppliers spending zillions on TV, radio and print advertising -- all of it cleverly orchestrated to separate consumers from their dollars and you from your customers?

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