Paul Ruden’s career with ASTA has been bookmarked by two
tectonic events in travel distribution: airline deregulation and the dawn of
New Distribution Capability. But there have been plenty of others in between:
airline commission cuts, the rise of the Internet, GDS deregulation, Department
of Transportation (DOT) airline consumer protection rules and countless
regulatory battles at local, state and federal levels.
And through it all, Ruden, who in September will retire as
ASTA’s executive vice president for legal and industry affairs, has persevered
as the champion of travel agents, using his talents as a scholar, strategist
and fearsome cross-examiner on their behalf.
Cheryl Hudak, president of ASTA from 2006 to 2008 and now a
sales executive for Mark Travel Corp., said Ruden can instantly see the big
picture as well as the details. A classic example of this, she said, was his
reaction to state taxes on hotel markups and fees. He promptly recognized that
those taxes, ostensibly aimed on online travel agency giants like Expedia, also
could affect rank-and-file agents.
Hudak said Ruden’s first thought with any issue was “How
will this affect travel agents?”
A major reason for his concern about agents is his belief
that they provide invaluable consumer protection.
“I believe travel is a public good and that the complexities
and costs of it are such that many people need or want help,” Ruden said.
“Travel agents provide that service, and it is important that they have a fair
chance to succeed.”
That, he said, has fueled his ability to advocate for an
Bruce Charendoff, senior vice president of government and
external affairs for Sabre, who has worked closely with Ruden on many issues,
called him a “pillar of ASTA’s advocacy strategy,” with Ruden often acting as
the voice of travel agents.
Marc Casto, president and chief operating officer of Casto
Travel and chairman of ASTA’s Corporate Advisory Council, called Ruden’s
ability to convey the needs of the agency community to lawmakers and
regulators, particularly at the Department of Transportation, “olympian.”
At the same time, Ruden is equally skilled at explaining the
implications of current developments to agents with varying backgrounds and
business needs, said Mark Pestronk, travel industry lawyer and Travel Weekly’s
legal columnist, who has worked shoulder to shoulder with Ruden on several
major cases, among them ASTA’s successful appeal of ARC’s attempt to increase
the annual fee it charged agencies by as much as 500% over three years,
according to ASTA. Pestronk called Ruden a “fearsome cross-examiner” during
depositions and testimony.
“Paul is simply irreplaceable,” said ASTA CEO Zane Kerby, who said the association has been thwarting Ruden’s efforts to retire for years.
Many praised Ruden’s deep knowledge of the industry and rued
its potential loss.
“Paul is simply irreplaceable,” said Zane Kerby, president
and CEO of ASTA, who said the association has been thwarting Ruden’s efforts to
retire for years.
“We wouldn’t let him,” Kerby said. But he also added that
Ruden had agreed to continue on as a consultant.
Ruden said he was not retiring for lack of interest.
“I think it’s fascinating, maybe more so than it ever has been
because of technology changes and the things that appear to about to happen, in
terms of NDC,” he said. He was referring to the new communication standard that
should create more flexibility for selling airline products, including
ancillaries, through travel agencies and other third parties.
Ruden, with representatives of other industry groups, waged
an aggressive campaign to involve agents and other industry stakeholders in
NDC’s development and will be attending an IATA meeting about the standard later
Still, he said that though he loves every minute of his job,
it is hard and stressful work. ASTA, which once had three lawyers, now has one,
meaning he now does double to triple the work he once did.
“The bottom line is we have not enjoyed the full support of
the industry, so our resources have been constrained,” Ruden said. “It’s a
problem of all associations and not meant as a criticism, but another plea to
‘help us help you.’”
Ruden praised the current government affairs team, Eben
Peck, its senior vice president, and Mark Meader, who recently joined as a vice
president. Meanwhile, he said, “it’s time for me to flap my wings a little bit
and do some other things.”
He said he is still looking forward to working on
interesting strategic initiatives with ASTA.
“We won’t let him get too far away,” Kerby said, adding “I
and the entire ASTA staff will miss his daily presence. He has left an
indelible mark on this association and this industry.”