We've heard some sad stories in the past couple of weeks. We do not mean the fact that the major airlines cut the base commission rate; anyone who didn't see that coming just wasn't paying attention. The sad thing is that, judging by the phone calls, faxes and letters we've received since the airlines made their move, many agents did not read the signs -- and there were many -- and have built their futures on a foundation of sand. Now those sands have shifted.

If the commission caps of 1995 were not warning enough, plenty of other developments during the past 32 months should have served as a clarion call that it was time for agents to refocus their business. With the electronic ticketing, disk-based booking systems, Web sites with booking capability, Internet auctions, smart cards for shuttle services, e-mail service and a host of other technological developments, the airlines have not exactly kept their intentions a secret: If the agent does not add something to a transaction, the agent is out of the game.

Another sad thing we've heard in the last few days is that even as airlines insist that agents must be creative and innovative to maintain their role in the high-tech world, some carriers apparently don't recognize a creative opportunity when it bites them on the leg. We heard from a Dallas-area agent who was organizing a group movement of 90 people traveling from Dallas to Beijing. The agent called the two U.S. airlines that serve Beijing and asked for a quote, adding that the group could travel whenever either carrier had space to fill -- in other words, when it was convenient for the airline. Both airlines told the agent he would have to provide dates before they could give him fare quotes. So he called a foreign carrier and got a quote within two days.

Now, maybe United and Northwest don't consider a group of 90 traveling from Dallas to Beijing an example of creativity, but to us it sounds like the basis for a beautiful friendship, at the very least. We get a little annoyed when airlines criticize agents for being order-takers and then trip over their own rigidity. We understand tough, unpopular business decisions; boneheadedness is a little harder to swallow.

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