STA's latest data on service fees show that 88% of the society's members charge fees for some or all of their services and have not lost significant business as a result.

We think that's pretty good news, and ASTA rightly presents it as clear evidence that travelers value the services of travel agents and are willing to pay a fee for the benefit of their expertise and experience.

Not so long ago, many travel agents feared that service fees would drive their customers away or send a signal to suppliers that agents could get by on reduced commissions.

Those concerns have dissipated in the face of harsh economic realities, to the point that it's a rare agency these days that doesn't charge for producing an airline ticket. And not only have more agents adopted fees, agents are not being shy about increasing them when necessary.

Prior to the first commission cap in 1995, only 20% of ASTA members charged service fees of any kind. After the 1997 commission cut, that number started to grow dramatically, rising to 64% in 1998, to 75% in 1999 and to 88% in 2000.

What surprises us in the latest report is a statistically insignificant drop in 2001 to 87.8%, suggesting that the trend line suddenly flattened out.

We don't know what to make of that, but, clearly, this is a number that bears watching.

And speaking of flat, there are more than a few flat and sagging numbers in ARC's latest monthly report on agency air sales. April's domestic air sales were down 9% from a year ago. For the first four months, agency air sales were up a mere 0.5%.

We don't know whether these numbers reflect the general softening of the airline business or agents' diminishing participation in it, or both.

But this, too, bears watching.

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