On a recent press call Eben Peck, executive vice president of advocacy at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), broke down what the organization sees as the biggest legislative stories of the year for the travel industry.
“The switchover in administration meant a lot of change for what ASTA does,” Peck said. January saw the introduction of “Travel Ban 1.0,” which caused chaos at U.S. airports.
“It arguably had a ripple effect throughout the industry on whether people would be welcome in the U.S.,” Peck said. Over the past year, a modified, narrower version worked its way through the courts, and is moving forward for the most part.
January also saw ASTA launch a new consumer awareness committee, and in February, the organization hosted the ASTA Destination Expo in Kenya. March saw the introduction of the ban on laptops and other large electronic devices in airline cabins on flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa.
“At some point they started making noise about expanding that to the EU, which would have been 10, 20 times the impact,” Peck said. The ban was later rescinded in exchange for a number of new airport security measures.
“Now there’s been rumbles about banning electronics in checked bags because of the risk that lithium ion batteries post to flights – that’s in very early stages,” Peck said. “The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has recommended that, but it’s not necessarily going to happen anytime soon.”
“In April, you had the United Airlines dragging incident, which shone a very bright spotlight on airline customer service and one could argue lack of competition in the airline industry,” Peck said. He noted that there has been some attention to the issue in Congress, with some provisions in a preliminary FAA bill increasing compensation for passengers who are denied boarding. “Given the huge flak that made at the time, there’s been surprisingly little action taken by the government.”
In May, ASTA and the travel industry celebrated Travel Agent Appreciation Day, and also got members of Congress to introduce the “Travel Agent Retail Fairness Act,” which would take travel agents off of a regulatory blacklist that blocks them from using an exemption to federal overtime rules. While the bill has not been passed, the organization considered it a positive step.
“Anytime we can get something introduced in Congress with ‘travel agent’ in the title, that’s something we’re very proud of,” Peck said.
In June ASTA continued its advocacy efforts with its Legislative Day on Capitol Hill. That month also saw the announcement of President Donald Trump’s new restrictions on Cuba travel, which blocked individual people-to-people trips and transactions benefiting Cuba’s military. “It’s not a complete shutting of the door,” Peck noted.
In July ASTA released the “How America Travels” study, which measured popular sentiment on how Americans view the value of travel agents, as well as various public policy issues affecting travel. That same month the U.S. Census Bureau came out with 2015 job numbers that had good news for travel agents – employment had increased from just under 100,000 to 118,000, an 18 percent increase. “We’re very interested to see what happens with those census numbers in 2016,” Peck said.
In August ASTA launched the Verified Travel Advisor Certification Program at its Global Convention. Thus far the program has netted 12 graduates, 158 agents currently in coursework, and 479 who have started the enrollment process.
“September was dominated by hurricane response,” Peck said. “We spent a lot of time working with the national media and our members to get the word out that the majority of the Caribbean is untouched and ready for visitors.”
Also in September Congress introduced a bill to harmonize the definition of the federal text on independent contractors.
In November, ASTA marked four legislative wins on the state level, in Pennsylvania, Maine, Ohio and Illinois. In those four states the governor proposed taxing travel agency services, Peck said, and in each of those cases the measures were defeated. Altogether, the efforts saved ASTA member agents approximately $62.6 million per year, Peck said.
November also saw British Airways implement its GDS surcharge, and Air France is set to do one as well this April, Peck said. That month ASTA also hosted the ASTA China Summit, the organization’s first conference in the country.
The year closed on a low note, Peck said: In December, the Department of Transportation (DOT) officially shelved its proposal on transparency for airline bag fees, an issue the organization had been considering since 2011.
“It was a pretty modest step in the right direction, but I think, reflecting airline lobbying, this was pulled,” Peck said.