|Travel Agent Contributing Editor George Dooley|
The American Society of Travel Agent's (ASTA) recent two hour Legal Seminar underscored the real value of ASTA to the travel agency community and to the entire distribution system.
The webinar offered invaluable information and analysis from two top travel industry attorneys: Mark Pestronk, Esq., and Paul Ruden, Esq., vice president legal & industry affairs ASTA. The third participant was Samuel Podberesky, the respected assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement and proceedings for the Department of Transportation (DOT), who provided a welcome view of the decision-making and policy of the DOT.
The webinar included three stand-alone sessions. The first one, entitled "Prepare Your Business to Meet Your Statutory Obligations with DOT's New Rules", focused on travel agents' current and pending regulatory obligations and the effects of DOT policy. One conclusion: new rules will take effect as early as January that will impact how agents and airlines advertise, including communicating prices and code shares.
The second session, entitled "Travel Agency Legal Check-Up", offered a preventative review of the critical things agents can do to protect their business, especially when agencies are dealing with independent contractors. It also underscored the importance of disclaimers. These are continuing problems for agents who were urged to protect themselves from risks and litigation by applying prudent polices and procedures. Key recommendations: thoroughly investigate unknown independent contractors your agency deals with and use signed disclaimers from clients.
The third session, entitled "Direct Connect or Misconnect", was conducted by Pestronk and reviewed the current multi-front battles between Global Distribution System (GDS) and airlines focusing on how contract battles and Direct Connect will impact agents. Pestronk stressed that his view does not necessarily reflect ASTA’s but noted that travel agents will be profoundly affected by the conflict. Recommendation: beware of DOT policies on consumer disclosure that may prove decisive.
In all three sessions a core lesson to be learned by agents and agencies is that they will have to pay close attention to what is happening in the industry and in Washington, D.C. and the changes underway. Clearly, the DOT has become more involved in regulating how travel is sold. Not only were sweeping new laws introduced this year, but DOT also enforces existing rules, including DOT enforcement action against travel agents.
A key conclusion is that agents face greater risks and will have to disclose more information to consumers – as will suppliers. Noteworthy is that new DOT rules will apply to air ticket agents and to agents who sell and promote tours and cruises that include air.
ASTA’s webinar offered invaluable insights and underlined the need for professional agents to be aware – and plan for – sweeping changes in how travel is sold and how agencies are managed. Change is not only inevitable but has to be anticipated. Dealing with the unknowns - from tsunamis to strikes, uprisings to bankruptcies - will tax the ability of the best agency owners and mangers.
No single webinar can answer every question, such as the costs of complying with new DOT consumer protection rules by airlines and agents. But ASTA’s webinar provoked thought and delivered value. It also defined ASTA’s role in a rapidly changing business as an educator. ASTA will in fact continue to be critical to professional agents survival and success as will its ability to deliver the views of knowledgeable, high integrity experts. Well done!