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Travel agents rally against airlines

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- If you couldn't get through to your travel agent Thursday, you probably should have checked the airport.

Travel agents across the country were encouraged to shutter their offices from 1 to 3 p.m. EDT Thursday to protest several major airlines' decision to scale back their caps on agents' commissions.

Some planned to take part in "informational picketing" at airports and rallies at several state capitols, while others planned to meet with federal lawmakers as part of the American Society of Travel Agents' Nationwide Day of Awareness.

In recent days, airlines including American, Delta, United, Continental and U.S. Airways have dropped their maximum commission to $20 for round-trip tickets on domestic flights and $10 for one-way tickets, with an overall commission rate of 5 percent. The previous caps were $50 and $25.

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Agents argue the move is an effort to put them out of business or force them to stop booking tickets so that travelers will have to deal directly with the airlines. They say that will cost fliers who don't get agents' unbiased help in comparing prices and finding the best fares.

"We're really trying to draw attention to the plight of consumers, because without agents, consumers will be at the mercy of airlines' airfares," said ASTA Vice President Kathy Sudeikis of Kansas City, Missouri.

Tough year for airlines

In separate statements announcing the commission change, airlines said they wouldn't comment further. On Thursday, spokeswomen for several airlines declined comment on the travel agents' action, as did a spokeswoman for Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines.

Airlines are struggling through what could be their worst year ever as the slumping economy has forced carriers to cut back on business travel. By some analysts' estimates, they could lose as much as $2.5 billion for year's end.

At the same time, airlines are less dependent on travel agents now that fliers increasingly book their tickets online. Reducing the commission cap could save the airlines million of dollars.

Not all agents opted to participate in the Thursday effort.

Steve Loucks of Carlson Wagonlit Travel said the international corporation wasn't endorsing the action and was leaving it up to individual offices. Still he said, it shared others' concern about the airlines.

"First and foremost comes our customers, and we want to be there for them," he said.

• American Society of Travel Agents
• Air Transport Association
• Carlson Wagonlit Travel

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