Every day businesspeople fly on scores of airplanes in thousands of seats at dozens of prices determined by hundreds of travel firms. The gap between how a corporate-travel agency could perform and how it does can be wide -- and costly. Here are eight questions to evaluate how your agency stacks up.

1. What is the agency's revenue? Agencies grossing less than $10 million a year don't wield enough clout to wheedle favorable treatment from airlines; agencies that bring in more than $60 million don't bother to. The willingness and ability of a middle-ground agency to forge special deals can save clients as much as 40% beyond everyday discounts.

2. What support do the agency's up-front people receive? Negotiating favorable seat prices is a constant-vigilance mission that requires backup staff, a non-revenue-producing expense many agencies are loath to assume. An acceptable ratio is one support person behind each selling agent.

3. Where's our free ticket? To interest agencies in out-of-the-mainstream flights that otherwise would be chronically underbooked, carriers tender rewards for booking them. Often the favor is complimentary tickets -- for the agency, not the flier. A responsible agency passes them along.

4. Is the agency biased toward certain carriers? Agencies can earn lucrative overrides (percentage points added to the standard 10% commission) by funneling business through only one or two airlines. A responsible agent should spread business among several carriers.

5. Does the agency have an automatic low-fare finder? If it doesn't, you aren't automatically being quoted the best available price. A diligent agency electronically scours the system for price breaks half a dozen times a day.

6. How does the agency's average discount compare with retail? Against list prices, every agency appears a discounting genius. The better measure is against Lowest Logical Business Fare -- the three-to seven-day advance-purchase price that even you could obtain.

7. How carefully does the agency monitor its individual sellers? Computer surveillance to prevent innocent overpricing is a minimum safeguard. An agency ought to employ a quality-control manager as well.

8. What quid pro quos can a business expect for volume purchasing? More than a million dollars' worth of air travel a year ought to bring you your own agent-in-residence; several hundred thousand dollars' worth should entitle you to a satellite ticket printer on the premises. -- Robert A. Mamis

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