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Buying airline tickets requires a sharp eye for computer 'bias'

Is your travel agent biased?

Buying plane tickets through a travel agent can be faster and much less complicated than dealing with the airlines yourself, particularly if you are planning a complicated trip or trying to find the cheapest fare among several airlines.

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And getting through the often confusing array of fare wars, children's discounts, super-savers, and various minimum-stay requirements makes a good travel agent even more valuable.

The agent's computer, however, may be working against you.

When the travel agent types in your destination and expected departure and arrival times, the typing probably is being done on a computer terminal supplied by one of four major airlines. And the airlines, like any competitive enterprise , tend to think of their own interests first. While other airlines buy space to list their flights on these computers, the hosts get first billing. So if your travel agent asks the computer for the flights going from Chicago to Los Angeles , for example, and the computer is American Airlines' Sabre system, the first screen of six to eight flights will be dominated by American offerings.

The same is true of the other major carriers' computers: United's Apollo, Trans World's Pars, and Eastern's System One. It will also probably apply to Delta's entry, which is expected to be in use soon.

This tendancy of airline computers to favor their master's flights is known in the trade as ''bias.'' An inexperienced or lazy travel agent will look at just one screen's list of flights and tell a customer, ''I see only two or three flights that day.'' But if he scrolled the screen up some more, he might see two , three, or four more flights on several different airlines.

The issue of bias came up earlier this year when Braniff International Airways charged American with using its computer against Braniff, pushing the troubled carrier's flights farther down into the computer. The Justice Department has been investigating the matter, trying to see if the systems constitute a violation of antitrust laws.

Some of the cut-rate airlines have chosen to make little use of the computers at all. Some of these airlines' flights, for instance, will show on the screens, but the availability of seats will not, so the travel agent has to make a special call to the airline to find out if you can get a seat.

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Most travel agents are aware of bias, and are trained to put the computer through its paces to find the most convenient and, if possible, the least expensive flights.

Some of the small one-office travel agencies may have purchased computers from more than one airline, perhaps all four to make sure all the bases are covered. Larger agencies with several offices in a city and a large centrally based system, usually will rely on just one computer. Because American's Sabre is the largest system, it is the one customers are most likely to find if there is only one.

''We had to pick a system,'' said Bernard Garber, president of Garber Travel, the largest travel agency in New England, which uses Sabre. ''But the travel agent has to understand how bias works and has to dig a little deeper'' to find the best flights, he added.

In Dallas, Nancy Strong, owner of Strong Travel, uses two systems: She relies on American's Sabre for domestic flights and TWA's Pars for international service.

The airlines providing computers admit that they build in bias; it is part of their marketing strategy. But a careful traveler can be aware of the strategy and that some travel agents won't bother working around bias. If you think your agent isn't doing this, ask them if they have taken the computer's bias into account and have checked the entire system for the best flights.

If you are still not sure, call another travel agent and ask whose computer they are using. They may either be using a different system or doing a better job of overcoming bias with the same system.

And even with computers, Ms. Strong adds, travel agents have to use other sources for information on flights. ''That computer is not the last word,'' she says. ''Customers may have heard about something on the radio that isn't on the computer yet. So we check newspapers and listen to the radio every morning.''

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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