Some U.S. travel agents, meanwhile, might have been hoping last week that United would turn over a new leaf and abandon its plan to impose strange new prohibitions on the use of its merchant account. But as the July 20 deadline approached, their hopes were looking dim.

Agents might take some comfort from the fact that other airlines aren't rushing to match United's new policy on credit card merchant fees, but there is no doubt that if United gets away with whatever it's doing, the practice will spread.

History has shown that few airlines can resist the temptation to emulate the practices of competitors when they add even a bit of revenue or shave even a bit of cost.

This tendency takes on a new dimension in today's environment, however, when so many airlines have antitrust immunity to "coordinate their marketing activities," to borrow the prevailing euphemism.

The DOT's decision on the Star Alliance gives 10 Star members antitrust immunity to share proprietary information on marketing and distribution and adopt common strategies and practices for their dealings with intermediaries.

And within Star, United has a joint venture agreement to begin a "virtual merger" with Air Canada, Lufthansa and Continental.

Whose "best practices" will they adopt?

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