For Agents, New ARC Program Is a Double Helix

Last month ARC (formerly Airlines Reporting Corp.) officially launched Helix (www.arccorp.com/helix), its controversial new "members-only" program for home-based and retail travel agencies in the face of industry associations and marketing groups wary of its impact on an already competitive market.

Core elements of the Helix program include "competitive supplier offerings, multiple business services, and the professional education and training needed to operate more efficiently and become more profitable."

ARC reports it has negotiated partner agreements with premier suppliers, including Carnival Cruise Lines, Globus Family of Brands, Avalon Waterways, Insight Vacations, Travel Impressions, Marriott International, Funjet Vacations, and Southwest Airlines Vacations, among others. As a result of the preferred supplier agreements, Helix agencies will have access to enhanced and, in some cases, exclusive commissions.

More than 16,000 travel agencies and 190 airlines now use ARC’s transaction settlement services, which, in 2010, totaled more than $77 billion in value. It’s that reach that has some agencies and consortia concerned.

"We have some real antitrust concerns here," says Bruce Bishins, managing director of the Association of Retail Travel Agents. "It's one thing for ARC to accredit, regulate and provide settlement services to travel agencies in an arena where such controls are imposed on all travel agencies; it's quite another matter when the very same regulator also runs a commercial operation in which it replicates and competes with the entities with which some agencies are affiliated and are members. ARC also has extensive data about travel agencies including airline sales, service charge amounts processed, non-air sales via MarketPlace, and a treasure trove of business information which will allow ARC to unfairly compete against established agency groups in the acquisition of members."

The Leisure Travel Alliance (LTA), a travel agency marketing organization based in Austin, Texas, with 275 affiliated agencies, also expressed concerns. president Stuart Godwin told Travel Agent that the decision to launch Helix changes the relationship between ARC and travel agents.

"With all due respect to any statements to the contrary,” says Godwin, “we do not believe that ARC can separate Helix from ARC’s legacy. The very fact that ARC is publicizing Helix as an ARC business unit, that ARC’s president is speaking on behalf of Helix and that ARC is promoting Helix on its website brings into question any suggestion that Helix is somehow an independent business entity."

The Professional Association of Travel Hosts (PATH), has also taken critical aim at Helix, New president Anita Pagliasso says, “The biggest issue is that ARC is an airline-owned company and should maintain a level of neutrality on agents, agencies and agency organizations.” PATH members represent a majority of host agencies and their member independent home-based agents.

Despite these concerns, ARC reports that travel agents have overwhelmingly welcomed Helix. David R.B. Collins, ARC’s president and CEO, said in a statement: "In response to questions related to Helix, we wish to confirm that the program was purposely built on a model that totally separates it from ARC’s core accreditation and transaction settlement mission and, as such, would not benefit from the analysis and use of airline transaction data. ARC has a history of providing products and services, such as our service fee program, which benefit agents and we plan on continuing to do so,"

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