merican Express, the big charge card company (you've heard of it), has about 55 million charge cards circulating in the global economy, and the holders of those cards charged more than $72 billion in goods and services in the third quarter. American Express got about $1.9 billion of that, plus about $423 million in cardholder fees. It's a pretty good business. In the first nine months of this year, American Express reported a net profit of about $1 billion on revenue of $15.7 billion.


It is against the backdrop of these very large numbers that American Express last month decided to impose an annual fee of $195 on all U.S. travel agencies and tour operators that have merchant accounts for accepting the American Express card.

As originally conceived, the fee would have applied to all U.S. travel agencies with merchant accounts, regardless of the type or volume of their transactions. Initially, fewer than 5,000 agencies were to be affected.

After getting some feedback, the company decided the fee won't apply to agencies that use their merchant accounts solely for processing their own consulting and service fees. That brings the affected agency population down to fewer than 4,000 U.S. agencies. As such, the fee will generate less than $800,000 for American Express.

As a percentage of the overall revenue generated by the card, $800,000 is -- well, truth is, we couldn't make our calculator produce a number that small. American Express claims the fee is justified because its travel accounts require "heightened daily maintenance," owing to the fact that "American Express makes payment to merchants in advance of services being performed."

Perhaps the lesson for travel agents here is that a successful business can't be timid about passing on its increased costs to its customers, no matter how ridiculous it might seem to the customer.

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