If ARC cured cancer tomorrow, the global applause would be deafening. And when it died down, some travel agents, somewhere, would be heard to mutter, "Yeah, but ... "

History has shown that when airlines act collectively, as they do through ARC, some measure of skepticism is often warranted. Thus it comes as no surprise that ARC's rollout of the Helix program has met with an array of reactions from agents and agency groups ranging from "cool" to "call my lawyer."

Without venturing too deeply into the murk of antitrust law, it does seem that, as with any ARC enterprise, the combination of Helix with ARC's clout and data management prowess creates the opportunity for mischief.

But it's not big mischief, and it would seem to be of marginal value to ARC.

We would like to think that this organization has bigger fish to fry than poaching a few hundred independent contractors from hosts and consortia.

As for the product, Helix seems to have a number of attractive features for independent agents. The bundle of services, which includes credit card processing for service fees, offers convenient one-stop shopping. And the lineup of partner suppliers includes such A-list companies as Marriott, Carnival, Globus and Travel Impressions. The membership fee is reasonable, and it's waived for the first year.

It's not a bad deal, and many agents will look no further and sign up quickly. For them, ARC is merely a service provider.

For other agents, however, ARC remains an object of suspicion and distrust. Try as it might, and it has tried mightily, ARC may never shed all the baggage that it has dragged into this century.

But we're seeing progress. ARC began life as the airline industry's private verification system and transaction clearinghouse. It was a closed community wherein ARC-appointed travel agents did business with ARC member airlines. All others keep out.

ARC's closed community included 39,000 retail locations that generated $83 billion in business in 2000, but that was a decade ago, and the numbers have never again been that high.

One way to maintain efficiencies in such a scenario is to diversify, which is one way to describe what ARC has been doing in recent years with its MarketPlace, Verified Travel Consultant Program, Pay-a-Bill service for hotels and wholesalers and other activities.

Unfortunately for ARC, processing $75 billion to $80 billion in transactions per year, and ensuring the integrity of those transactions for 200 airlines, is a tough act to follow. Just about anything else ARC does or tries to do will necessarily pale by comparison.

Mike Premo, who is slated to become ARC's CEO later this year, said shortly after joining ARC a few years ago that the company was committed to delivering value to its airline owners by making the agency channel more efficient and attractive for them to use.

If Helix serves that goal by enhancing the professionalism and profitability of small, independent agents, then we applaud it.

And if Helix marks a step in the evolution of ARC from an airline club concerned only about air ticketing to a service bureau with a broader travel industry constituency, then we applaud that, too.

But when the applause stops, don't be surprised if, somewhere, somebody is muttering. 
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI