eing one of the industry's smaller carriers, US Airways never developed much of a reputation as a marketing innovator. It can't take credit for hubbing, the GDS, the Super Saver, yield management, frequent flyer benefits, e-ticketing or sliced bread.

But on a cloudy afternoon last week, US Airways more than made up for all that by becoming the launch customer for a new Sabre program that puts so-called "Web fares" where they belong: into an integrated display on the travel agent's GDS screen.

If this practice catches on, and we have some reason to expect that it will, then this industry will turn a corner and we can turn our back on the very phrase "Web fare."

If an airline puts all its inventory and pricing options into its travel agents' GDS, there is no such thing as a Web fare. We go back to having, simply, an array of fares, some low, some not so low.

So if this is the beginning of the end for the "Web-only fare," we're all for it. The Web fare is an anomaly born of the idea that airlines can reduce their costs by modifying their customers' behavior; i.e., driving them to self-service bookings on the Internet.

Unfortunately, the method chosen by the airlines to drive customers to the Web was the promise of the lowest possible fare, a tactic that robbed the Internet of much of its revenue potential. It also alienated travel agents and threatened the GDSs.

For some time now, the GDS operators have been looking for ways to respond to that threat, so that airlines would feel better about putting their lowest fares back into the agency/GDS channel.

To their credit, US Airways and Sabre came up with a simple market-based solution that deals realistically with everybody's needs:

• Sabre agents get seamless access to Web fares and a guarantee that the airline will pay the same commission (if any) for Web bookings via Sabre that it pays to agents using the Web or other GDSs. The airline also guarantees that clients booking these fares through Sabre will receive the same amenities as other passengers.

• Sabre gets a three-year commitment from the airline that it will participate in the system at the Direct Connect Availability level.

• The airline gets a 10% reduction of the GDS booking fee.

The downside for agents is the likelihood that Sabre will scale back its incentive payments to agents. Depending on the size of the cutback, it may be a price many agents are willing to pay.

But unlike American's cumbersome and one-sided EveryFare plan, nobody in this deal walks off with all the booty, leaving others standing around the table with their pockets hanging out.

And best of all, the government didn't have to tell anybody to do anything.

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