One of the lessons of airline deregulation is that a business marriage -- dare we use the word "partnership" -- cannot survive unless it is feasible for both parties. United's move to cut commissions by another 20% further soured its relationship with agents. The carrier's disenchantment seems unfounded. The move will force agents to rethink how and if they want to continue generating 80% of the airline's ticket sales.

Whether agents sue for divorce on grounds of "cruel and unusual punishment" or "alienation of affection" or alter their stance, this move will add to their pain and frustration and speed further changes in their airline mix. As the industry knows, the agency-airline partnership has not been fair for years. With deregulation, the airlines have grown stronger and agents, as a rule, weaker. In many cases, agents are powerless.

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United's cutback is just another example of airlines' riding roughshod over agents. By its own accounting, United will reap up to $100 million -- all out of the pockets of the poorest-paid members of the community involved in the care and feeding of passengers. The airline is emboldened, its planes are full and its coffers are flush with cash. It clearly expected other airlines to match.

Thanks to its hubs, its frequent flyer programs and lack of competition on individual routes, United can control its traffic without having to woo retailers. Like other airlines, it escaped relatively unscathed during the commission cap cuts in 1995.

Agency officials, including ASTA president Mike Spinelli, have urged agents to lessen their dependency on the sale of airline tickets. It is all very well to say that agents should reinvent themselves, but it is the airline tickets that the public wants from them. And in most communities, there is only so much money to spend on travel, with higher air fares taking an ever larger percentage.

For weeks, agents -- confronted with debit memos for issuing the lowest-priced tickets demanded by their clients -- have been saying with total conviction that the airlines are attempting to destroy the distribution system. Nothing that United did last week contradicts this claim.

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