Nickels and dimes, and olives

n its latest "Dear Travel Professional" letter last week, Continental Airlines puts its travel agents on notice that it is committed to "strict adherence" to advance-purchase, minimum-stay and other ticketing and tariff rules.

Translation: Continental "will no longer be granting fare rule waivers on any fare in any market."

We understand that Continental's "Executive Desks" may have been getting too permissive with some agents, and maybe that's not a good thing, but closing the door to all such waivers is not such a good thing either. There are times when a waiver will close a sale that wouldn't otherwise happen. A properly managed sales operation should be able to make the most of those opportunities.

Continental claims to be "strongly committed to the integrity of its fare structure." We'd be inclined to cheer if the fare structure was a little more defensible.

Maybe the fare waiver is just another one of those things like the olive in the salad: It goes away when times are tough and insinuates itself back into the system when the airlines are making money.

It's a seasonal business in more ways than one.

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Mixed signals

udget Group and Vanguard Airlines filed for bankruptcy within hours of each other last week, the sort of coincidence that sets people to wondering whether a "wave" of bankruptcies is upon us.

We think not, though it's certainly troubling for the car rental industry that two companies comprising three national brands, Budget, and ANC's Alamo and National, are in bankruptcy at the same time.

In recent years, the car industry's big two, Hertz and Avis, have retreated once again to the relative security of big parent companies (Ford and Cendant, respectively). As a result, we don't see public earnings statements from them like we used to, but Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, the largest publicly traded car rental company that's not in bankruptcy, reported increased earnings in the second quarter and proudly pointed out that over 40% of its business is booked on the Internet.

We're not sure what conclusions to draw from all this, given persistent rumors that Cendant is looking to acquire another car rental firm. Perhaps the best that can be said about wind direction in the car rental marketplace is "variable."

As for Vanguard, it's pretty clear that the star-crossed new-entrant airline is going to disappear. It never made a profit and surprised some observers by lasting as long as it did.

While we're sympathetic with the idea of Kansas City having a hometown airline, and while we're saddened by any business failure, the marketplace -- in this case -- appears to have spoken.

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