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Personal service comes with a price

If you prefer to speak with an agent rather than book airline tickets online, it's going to cost you.

In recent weeks, several airlines have announced new fees for booking frequent-flier awards and, in some cases, paid tickets through an airline representative.

Effective Oct. 15, United will charge a $15 handling fee for award tickets booked through a United representative, either by phone or at the airport. The fee will not apply to awards used to upgrade to a higher class of service, or to frequent-flier tickets that travelers book at www.united.com.

United is also increasing its fee, to $100 from $75, to make major changes to an award ticket or to cancel an award ticket and redeposit the miles; such changes cannot be done online. (Changes to a flight time or date on an award ticket are free, as long as the departure and arrival city and any connection points remain the same.)

On Aug. 27, Northwest began charging a $5 "call center ticketing fee" for award tickets and paid tickets purchased through a Northwest reservations agent, or a $10 fee for tickets purchased through an agent at the airport. It does not apply to tickets booked at www.nwa.com. Customers can still call to check flights and prices or discuss an existing reservation; the new fee is a one-time charge when a ticket is issued.

American Airlines essentially matched Northwest's policy on Sept. 6 when it began charging $5 for tickets purchased by phone through its reservation agents, and $10 for tickets purchased through a ticket agent at the airport. The new fees apply to paid tickets and frequent-flier awards.

Soon after, US Airways and Continental added a $5 fee for booking on their toll-free reservations systems and $10 on tickets purchased at airport ticket counters; there will be no fee on tickets purchased at airport kiosks and at www.usairways.com or www.continental.com.

"All of the low-cost carriers are achieving an advantage over us by selling more of their tickets on their Web sites," said Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for Northwest, which cited competition from low-cost airlines in announcing the fees.

Indeed, some low-cost carriers in effect charge more to book by phone, though typically the low-cost airlines present this as a discount for booking on their Web sites. For instance, JetBlue offers customers $3 off each one-way purchase for tickets booked at www.jetblue.com; travelers who buy tickets at www.flyi.com (Independence Air) can save $5 each way. Southwest has special fares that can be booked online only.

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