You win one, you lose one.

Although it might not add up to a lot of bucks, at least not for now, assurances by the fledgling National Airlines that it will continue to pay travel agents 10% commission can only come as good news to beleaguered retailers.

Implicit in the compensation arrangement is the acknowledgement by the carrier, which serves four major U.S. cities from its Las Vegas base, that it wants -- make that needs -- trade bookings to prosper.

According to Michael Conway, National's chairman and chief executive officer, his airline has "turned the clock back" on air travel when it comes to such niceties as in-flight meal service, leg room, carry-on space and, importantly, employee attitude.

It might be added that by maintaining a straight 10% pay rate National also has revisited a gentler time when airlines compensated agents fairly for the value of their contributions.

Tempering the good news from National is the lugubrious announcement from Alaska Airlines that it has succumbed to competitive pressures and will cap domestic and transborder commissions at $25 one way and $50 roundtrip, and international pay at $50 and $100. The limits go into effect Sept. 7.

Four years after the imposition of industrywide domestic pay caps and a year-and-a-half after international caps, Alaska said it experienced no significant shift in market share as a result of its agent-friendly commission policy.

So, while Alaska can no longer afford to go it alone, National, in the words of its head man, is "looking for ways to distinguish [itself] from the others. Paying a percentage commission is one way of doing that."

Conway's right. Travel agents should have no problem spotting National Airlines in a crowd at the airport. They're the ones not wearing caps.

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