The newly refocused ASTA offers the travel agency industry its first line of representation on complex government and industry issues that have an impact on every agency, independent agent and agency consortium.
While sometimes dismissed as remote from the day-to-day "bread-and-butter" concerns of working agents, ASTA's legislative and industry relations program is crucial if the industry is to avoid punitive taxation, costly regulation or sheer incompetence.
Equally important, ASTA's positions represent the interests of the traveling public—the clients of agents and agencies. Justifiably, ASTA urges agents to get involved, noting the importance of the talent and expertise of rank-and-file travel agents.
Information on current issues can be found at ASTA's web site, www.astanet.org. Seven top issues for the association are:
ARC Fee Increase
ASTA is moving aggressively to combat the Airlines Reporting Corp.'s service fee increase. This includes serving airline-owned ARC with requests for discovery asking it to disclose long-hidden internal finances and costs of its programs, some of which are paid for by agents.
ASTA argues that the ARC fee hike could raise an agency's annual administrative costs by as much as 170 percent. Backed by Carlson Wagonlit Travel Network Associates and Uniglobe Travel USA, ASTA filed a Notice of Appeal with the independent arbitration panel handling the dispute.
Both Carlson Wagonlit and Uniglobe are members of ARC's Joint Advisory Board-Agent Reporting Agreement (JAB-ARA), which provides for an independent arbiter to resolve disputes. A decision is expected in June.
ARC Drafts on Agent Accounts
ASTA will file a complaint with the Airlines Reporting Corp. about its plan to withdraw funds from agents' ARC checking accounts at an airline's request.
ASTA says the reporting board sent agents invoices using ARC's Payment Express program in place of debit memos. ASTA questions ARC's authority to collect for the airlines.
Airport and Flight Security
ASTA supports the transfer of security responsibility from the airlines to the government but stresses the need for containing costs. ASTA has urged the Transportation Security Administration to reduce costs of compliance with the federal Secure Flight program and allow six months for implementation.
A recent poll of ASTA's Premium members leads ASTA to expect first-year costs (including implementation) to be approximately $68.5 million, or $46.5 million more than the transportation agency's estimate.
ASTA has taken a leadership role in defending and defining passenger rights. Its proposed Passenger Bill of Rights became a blueprint for legislative solutions to flight delays and traveler inconvenience. ASTA's Paul Ruden, the veteran vice president of legal and industry affairs, is serving on a Department of Transportation task force and has testified before Congress on consumer issues. ASTA supports a federal law establishing airline customer rights.
Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
Rules governing documentation for travelers departing from or arriving at U.S. ports of entry (land or sea) from within the Western Hemisphere—including Canada and Mexico—have created intense controversy. The issue affects cruise lines and tour operators as well as millions of travelers.
ASTA has pressed for delays in implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative to avoid adverse economic impact. The association supports requiring a combination of documents for cruises and a passport card as an affordable alterative for travelers.
Denied Boarding Compensation
ASTA advocates updates in the 20-year-old DOT rules on airlines' obligations to bumped passengers, including issuing them cash payments instead of vouchers. Better disclosure of risks and rules are also needed, ASTA says.
In Michigan and Massachusetts, ASTA is combating tax proposals that would have an impact on agents and the industry. Massachusetts proposed a hotel occupancy tax and agent registration, while Michigan may implement a 6 percent tax on agents' services.
Supported by its strong grassroots network of chapters and Premium-level agencies, ASTA urges members to use its online Cap Wiz program to monitor legislative issues and respond quickly to challenges at the state level.