Caribbean agent union eyes air boycott

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WASHINGTON -- A new movement to create a travel agent union is blossoming in the Caribbean, with an eye toward restoring airline commissions through enlisting the help of U.S.-based travel agencies in the boycott of a major carrier.

The new union movement is unrelated to the Travel Agent Guild (TAG), another union effort led by agents in New York and Pennsylvania that after two attempts finally fizzled out a year ago, but there are similarities.

Like TAG, the Caribbean union, which calls itself the International Travel Agent Guild (ITAG), is using a Web site, at itag.winr.net, and an e-mail address, [email protected], to spread its message and recruit members.

The site features information on the union and an application form for membership. Dues are $20 annually if the agency has e-mail, $25 if it prefers to communicate by fax and $30 for firms that prefer mail.

Just as TAG grew out of the U.S. airline commission cuts, the ITAG took root in January when American Airlines reduced agent commissions from 9% to 6%. Several other carriers matched the cuts.

And also like TAG, ITAG is threatening to boycott an airline. ITAG is encouraging agents to choose an airline at its Web site.

"I can tell you that the voting is weighing heavily in favor of United Airlines," said Wayne Rodriguez, president of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Association of Travel Agents and spokesman for the ITAG.

TAG quickly garnered a great deal of travel agent interest, challenging conventional opinions by arguing that travel agents are de facto employees of the airlines and therefore could call a strike against them.

However, although certain indications by the courts seemed to lend support to that argument, there has been no clear ruling that said as much. Consequently, the union movement quietly faded away.

But Rodriguez and ITAG, which has become a hot topic on travel agent message boards on the Internet, appear to be undaunted.

"In the U.S., if somebody were to get up and say we are boycotting [an airline] and we are transferring the passenger to another, they could end up with problems," said Rodriguez in a telephone interview with Travel Weekly.

"Because of the antitrust laws that exist, associations like ASTA cannot really do anything to bring results. But it is not against the law in my country to preach boycott."

The movement began last January when Rodriguez criticized the carriers in the media for cutting agent commissions in the Caribbean.

Stories about the plight of Caribbean agents were carried in U.S. newspapers in Miami, Los Angeles and New York, where he was interviewed on a radio program.

Rodriguez said his message attracted several U.S. travel agents who "contacted me and said, 'Would you like to get together to form an international organization?' I said, 'Definitely.' "

ITAG intends to use "covert" communication to circumvent the legal thicket that ultimately mired TAG down.

Rodriguez, who declined to reveal the names of the agents on ITAG's board, believes if he can protect the identities of the participating U.S. agents, an airline boycott can succeed.

"Any agent who joins us, we guarantee their confidentiality," Rodriguez said. "We will get messages to the agents and indicate to them that the boycott of a [certain] carrier starting at a certain time."

Meanwhile, ASTA and ARTA separately warned agents about participating in organized boycotts.

"ASTA members on an individual basis can announce or publicize to their customers that as of a certain date [they] won't be selling a certain company, but that's it," said an ASTA spokesperson.

ARTA issued a advisory warning its members not to join.

"The issue legally is not where the [boycott] is suggested, it is where the action is carried out," said ARTA president John Hawks. "There is no question [ITAG's proposed boycott] is illegal. Any first year law student would know that."

It is unclear what effect the ITAG will have or whether it will be successful in garnering significant agent support in the U.S. However, two former members of TAG offered observations.

"It is like a lot of things. Sometimes there is a lot of complaining but not much action," said Loretta Fallon of Cook Travel in East Hampton, N.Y. "I really don't think any [union] is going to have much impact."

Another former member from Escape Travel in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., had an even bleaker assessment.

"We joined different programs with hope that they would help us. Most of them didn't and were automatically dropped. That's all I care to say about it, OK?"

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