s a nation we survived the missile gap, the generation gap, the credibility gap and probably some other gaps that have fallen into our own memory gap. But now the travel profession is faced with a new gap, as ominous as any of these. For want of a better word, we'll have to call it the cheap seat gap.

According to Consumer Reports Travel Letter, this gap is getting wider. In its latest game of hide-and-seek with that chimera known as "the lowest fare," CRTL claimed that "it's getting harder to find the best fares through a travel agent."

The basis of this claim appears to be that in a Consumer Reports test, six Web sites sometimes met or beat Sabre's lowest fare for the same itinerary, and they did so more often than they did during a similar test two years ago.

This might be a cause for concern if the CRTL research didn't suffer from a credibility gap of its own.

A close reading of the report shows that CRTL sorted its low-fare search results on the basis of "viability." A viable result was deemed to be a fare for a direct flight close to the time the passenger actually wants to travel, without excessive circuitry or long connecting times.

On this basis, according to CRTL's own data, Expedia bested Sabre only 1% of the time, and Orbitz beat Sabre only 23% of the time.

But we take consumer surveys of this type with a big grain of salt, and we're recommending an extra dose this time.

Even assuming the Web searches and Sabre queries were conducted correctly, it would be risky to conclude that these numbers reflect the relative performance of travel professionals compared with typical do-it-yourself Web shoppers. Also, the margin of error would seem to be large because the statistical sample is small. For each of the Web sites, Consumer Reports ran fewer than 100 tests.

And even if the results are as valid as CRTL wants them to be, do travel agents really care any more if they are not depicted in the popular press as the "best" place to go for "the lowest" airline fare?

To borrow and bend a bon mot from that noted philosopher Mike Spinelli: "Gap, schmap."

Aid for US Airways

e'll come right out and say it: We don't want to lose another major U.S. airline.

Consolidation in this business may be inevitable, and the problems facing US Airways may be largely of its own making, but if a government loan guarantee will get it back on its feet, we're for it.

In the normal course of events, we do not think the taxpayers should have to pay for the mistakes of US Airways and its previous managements. But that would be in the normal course of events.

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