2012: Complex Issues Will Demand Agent Participation

The travel industry will face a host of tough issues in 2012, aside from the contention to be expected in an election year. Airline bankruptcies, hotel and passenger taxes, airport security and changes in travel distribution will all prove challenges to the industry.

Tax policies on the local, state and national level will have to be watched. The influential National Small Business Association (NSBA) lists 65 tax provisions that will expire at the end of 2011 and notes the economic impact of health care legislation.

International taxation will also offer agents and their associations a new dimension of challenge. This includes passenger taxes such as the one proposed by the United Kingdom or the European Union’s efforts to impose an “environmental” emissions tax on airline flights. All are complex with global implications for travel.

Major industry groups such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Air Transport Association- now rebranded, as Airlines for America (A4A)- have been vocal and relevant in their objections to taxes, which unfairly punish the industry or are demonstrably unproductive.

So too has the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Business Travel Coalition (BTC). Both have championed fair and sensible policies that do not cripple travel demand or cut into its economic benefits to destinations. With a resurgent Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA), agents are well served by trade groups.

While each major industry group appears to have their own issues, priorities and agenda there is real cooperation.  The Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA), for example, has teamed up with online travel agents, ASTA and the BTC on issues. This includes support for legislation that will mandate that airlines disclose the full cost of travel so that consumers can compare prices among airlines.

The CTA also advocates set time limits on how long passengers can be held on board aircraft while waiting to take off – the so called tarmac delay rule.  Passenger privacy rights are another issue cited by CTA— such as passenger screening methods by the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

CTA has also championed identity protection issues, passenger privacy rights and the dangers seen in global airline alliances such as SkyTeam, oneworld and Star Alliance - often in alliance with ASTA and the BTC.

Agents can also anticipate ongoing clashes over airline distribution policies such as “Direct Connect” - advocated by American Airlines - and GDS policies and costs such as Travelport’s Agility program. Technology changes including ownership (think Google/ITA in 2011) can be anticipated along with divergent opinions as to their value to either online or offline agents.

If there is an 800-pound gorilla it’s the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), who has promised new changes in its rules that will impact consumers, ranging from security, to baggage and fee disclosures and more. New DOT rules to be mandated this year are sure to be controversial. One agency group, ARTA, questions the need for DOT involvement.

Visa waiver programs are also on the 2012 agenda – supported by the U.S. Travel Association and the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) among others. Helping build inbound travel to the U.S. such as the Brand USA program is a priority. In addition to funding issues, security concerns will be important if the U.S. is to succeed in attracting more international business.

In addition to opposing hotel occupancy taxes (state or local), the Interactive Travel Services Association (ITSA) has offered support on a diversity of issues from baggage fees to the problems of unbundled airfares, urging full disclosure.

ITSA has also supported the opening up of Cuba to more U.S. travelers as has the NTA  (formerly the National Tour Association) and the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA.) The NTA has also aggressively and successfully promoted expansion of travel demand from China.

The Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA) is a powerhouse that faces a host of maritime issues – legal, regulatory and environmental- and has a well-organized program of Congressional visits and leadership forums. So too does another Washington powerhouse, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA).

There is a score of other issues to anticipate in the year ahead, especially on the federal level. This includes the Small Business Administration's (SBA) policies toward agents and tour operators where both ASTA and NTA have been involved. There are also long standing worries about Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audits and classification of independent contractors. 

At the heart of the issues facing the travel industry is the ability of associations to monitor, reach and convince an often-fractious Congress and regulatory agencies such as the DOT of the economic value of the industry. Travel and tourism has been too often an afterthought despite the Congressional Travel & Tourism Caucus.

Winning issues, however, isn’t easy. It costs money. Money fuels skilled advocates and representation. And money fuels needed political action committees such as ASTAPAC. Beyond funding, an effective legislative program also means participation by agents and agencies  - grassroots support. Every trade group needs member expertise and viable support. 

Financial contributions and membership participation in one or more associations offer real leadership opportunities for agents concerned with shaping the future of a dynamic industry. 2012 may test the travel industry in new ways and effective leadership will be essential.

One certainty in 2012 is uncertainty. The travel industry will be challenged in 2012 as it was in 2011 by unforeseen events whether it’s a tsunami, volcanic ash, strikes, floods, freak snow storms and political upheavals. All tested the leadership of the industry. Be prepared and get involved.



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