It should go without saying that travel agents serve themselves best when they serve their customers first. Theoretically, you should not lose when you take that stance. So we were heartened by a recent Missouri circuit court decision that backed Omega World Travel of Fairfax, Va., in a dispute with TWA over selling discounted tickets offered by Global Discount Travel Service, the company set up by former TWA owner Carl Icahn to sell tickets offered him as part of a settlement.

Declaring that Omega did nothing more than protect the welfare of its customers and act to their advantage, the judge wrote, "It is certainly not unethical in the abstract for a travel agency to sell its customers the lowest-priced tickets available, and the evidence is that consumers and the travel industry alike expect travel agents to do that." The judge said an airline cannot claim that it would have collected the full fare had the agent not sold a discounted ticket, calling this argument "singularly ill-founded speculation."

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We bring up this ruling -- which TWA is appealing -- in light of the airlines' increasing attempts to crack down on agencies that knowingly, or unwittingly, book cheaper back-to-back and hidden-city tickets for their clients, violating the carriers' tariffs. No doubt, airlines will hear the judge's reasoning again, if they end up in court over their unequal enforcement of the rules.

Northwest addressed the issue indirectly when it introduced Everyday Fares, removing the incentive for consumers to buy back-to-back tickets. On many routes, a roundtrip Everyday Fare is cheaper than combining two fare-sale tickets. Reducing incentives for buying back-to-back or hidden-city tickets is the way to go, rather than harassing agents with debit memos for tickets the carriers will write for any client. That's discriminatory, if not a restraint of trade.

If it were clear that there is nothing wrong with agents' seeking the lowest fares for their clients -- as outlandish as the idea may seem to carriers -- the airlines would have an incentive to fix their irrational tariffs.

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