Putting a value on time

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Smart Business magazine (formerly PC Computing) this month published an article that opens like this: "What's galling isn't being stranded in Des Moines at 3 in the morning, no one to call for help. It's that your company is making a travel agency rich for such incompetent service."

A bit later, it says, "Clearly, business travelers are fed up with high prices and poor service. Brick-and-mortar agencies typically clock out at 5 p.m. ... They have every incentive to charge you more than necessary."

But, it adds, at Web agencies all those failings are fixed, and "service and dollar value" are their "calling cards."

Also, Web agencies are preferred because they don't charge service fees. (As far as I know, the highly praised Web businesses also aren't profitable; can the no-fee, no-profit combo go on forever?)

The referenced article can be read by clicking here. In addition, PC Computing last June had a similarly wide-eyed article about how wonderful it is to book travel on the Web and denigrating the services of travel agents. In a separate article in the same issue, brick-and-mortar agencies were among six industries marked for death. The authors said they "deserved to die." These articles were the subject of the Keystrokes column Self-booking fantasies.

The article carries the byline of freelancer Jason Compton. I called him to ask if he believed his own words.

Turns out he did not write the introductory grafs -- they were "pumped up," he said, and he did not see the rewrite before publication.

This is editing with an attitude, and the attitude is that everything, no matter what, no matter the circumstances, is better on the Web. Period.

The article's centerpiece is a review of five Web sites, a review with a different tone and one that undermines the opening because it points out the good, the bad and the not-too-speedy aspects of the sites.

I asked some agents for responses, and all pointed to the article's greatest weakness.

Time has value, but there is no attempt to answer the question of when, if ever, it is more cost-effective to have a busy executive use even the best Web site than pay an agency fee.

And then there are the claims that Web prices are better. The most recent relevant study I know of was ordered by DuPont; it found fares obtained via Rosenbluth's corporate travel division were, on average, better than those obtained on Travelocity and Expedia.

Expedia "won" in the Smart Business test, so Michele Hoey, Pennsylvania Travel, Paoli, Pa., ran her own test.

She had booked a client first class on US Airways, Philadelphia-Providence, for $955, including the discount available to the line's frequent flyer members.

She then shopped Expedia and found no way to get that particular discount; Expedia offered a $1,055 fare.

Her conclusion: The article is one-sided and does not give credit to a good agent.

As for my final observations: It is not so bad being stranded in Des Moines. That, of course, is a personal view, but based on real strandings.

But those strandings never had anything to do with an agent's "incompetence." It was the weather. Web, meet Mother Nature.

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