From one editor to another

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I have encouraged you to respond to the January issue of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter (CRTL), which fairly effectively made agents sound a bit smarmy, maybe even criminal, for accepting supplier overrides. I also said I would send my column on the subject to the editor of CRTL.

The editor is Laurie Berger, who came to the monthly publication last fall, succeeding Ed Perkins, who joined the staff of ASTA as its consumer advocate. I know Laurie, although not well. She is a former editor of Frequent Flyer magazine.

In a letter accompanying my Jan. 25 column, I said: "The enclosed column says much of what I have to say about a package of articles that unfairly makes agents sound like sleazy businesspeople who have no interest in the welfare of their clients. The use of bonuses (no need to use the pejorative 'kickbacks') paid to retailers by suppliers is not unique to the travel business, as I am sure you know.

"And you must surely be aware that the U.S. government has on occasion looked at overrides paid to travel agents trying to determine if they affect airline competition in some way that is harmful to the consumer, and those reviews have found overrides to be mostly neutral. This is probably because agents know what keeps them in business -- not merely happy customers, but repeat customers.

"I suggest that the matter of the role of commissions, overrides and service charges is more complex than your January articles would suggest, and it is a disservice to your readers as much as to agents if you do not revisit the subject for a more nuanced report. I suggest talking to a few travel agents for some of that insight, too."

I was not really trying to pick on the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. The point is that the trade has an image problem, at least some of the time. In the consumer press, sometimes you are the customer's only chance of benefiting from unbiased recommendations and from an insider's ability to shop for the best prices or to offer unique recommendations. At other times, you are practically villains for accepting bonuses or for being middlemen who run up the price of travel.

The CRTL stories prompted Jon Brobst, executive director of the Riverside Travel Group in Portland, Ore., to visit the offices of Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio for a little quality time explaining industry practices to an aide there.

Heading off hits to your reputation through good, ongoing relations with your local press is better than having to react after the fact. But if you have to react, Jon sets a pretty good example.

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