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.

Paul Ruden
Paul Ruden

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 entire industry.

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 this month.

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.”

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI