It still surprises us, and annoys many travel suppliers, that the travel agent industry's principal automated data processing and transaction tool, the CRS, keeps getting more costly.

For many travel suppliers (airlines, hotels, cruise lines, car rental and tour companies and others), the average booking fee rose this year at a rate that exceeded the Consumer Price Index and will do so again in 2001.

This, frankly, isn't supposed to happen. For the last 20 years or so, everything about computers has been getting smaller, better, easier, faster -- and cheaper. Everything, that is, except the legacy airline CRSs. They're getting bigger, better, easier, faster -- and more expensive.

Thanks to the latest increases, the average booking fee will be hovering around $4 per segment next year. That may be no big deal for big-ticket cruise lines, but should there be such a thing as a $200 roundtrip airline ticket in 2001, an airline would pay $10 to the travel agent and $8 to the CRS. A $200 hotel booking would yield $20 for the agent and $4 for the CRS. Supplier complaints about "distribution costs" aren't just about commissions anymore.

Travel agent visions of the future in recent years have been dominated by the impact of commission cuts and commission caps and the potential of the Internet to do good and to do harm, and rightly so. But bound up with these concerns is the role of the CRS.

The agency industry and the CRS industry have been nurturing each other for 20 years. They're virtually married to each other. But an increasing number of suppliers are growing restless over the prospect that the benefits of supporting the first partner may be outweighed by the cost of supporting the second.

If the mighty CRS dreadnoughts eventually sink under the weight of their own costs, agents will have to figure out how to avoid going down with the ship.

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