Travel agents face Web threat

With more travelers turning to the Internet to buy plane tickets and book hotel rooms, travel agents have seen their business shaken.
Thousands of agencies have folded or merged in the past six years. Almost all agents now charge fees for services that once were free. And many have turned to cruises and tour vacations for profits that once came from airplane reservations.
“Our industry, like all industries, is going through changes,” said Steve Fouts, an owner of the Departures agency in Winter Park, Fla. “We have to change with it, and those who do not may be in trouble.”
Fouts acknowledges that his agency has lost clients to the Internet but insists that most travelers prefer to deal with a real person rather than face hassles in cyberspace. That`s despite the fees he started imposing on plane ticket reservations after airlines began slicing the commissions paid to travel agents in 1995.
About 88 percent of agents now collect fees for all or some of their services, according to a May study by the American Society of Travel Agents. The price for issuing an airline ticket ranges from $5 to $25, with a $13.21 average.
Just 20 percent of agencies charged fees before 1995, the group says.
Many travel agents have not survived the transformation in the industry.
In 1996, the United States had about 47,300 travel agents, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.
That number has dropped 18 percent to about 38,900 last year.
To survive when others haven`t, Fouts said his agency has shifted its focus in the past three years -forgoing business travelers` plane tickets in favor of vacationers` cruises and tours that cannot be easily arranged online.
“We`re seeing the shift into doing what we do best, which is helping plan trips,” he said. “They come to us for advice, which is what we`re here for.”