Airline ancillary fee disclosure and transactability is the single most important consumer protection issue being considered by the Department of Transportation (DOT), according to Eben Peck, ASTA’s vice president of government affairs in his presentation to the DOT’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection.
“ASTA’s position is simple – the airline industry must provide consumers, working through every channel in which the airlines have elected to distribute their fares, with full transparency of all mandatory and optional charges of consequence and with the ability to buy those optional services, “ Peck said.
ASTA was one of the major industry groups asked to address the committee. Peck’s presentation underscored the importance of the issue to consumers and travel agents importance to airline distribution.
ASTA members are on the front lines in this arena, Peck said, interfacing with leisure travelers, families, business travelers, small businesses and others “frustrated by the inability to comparison shop for airfares and surprised by the need to pay additional fees upon reaching the airport. “
Peck noted that while their role has changed over the decades, travel agencies fulfill a range of needs for the traveling public. “They save consumers money and time by facilitating effective comparison shopping and decision-making as to how best to spend their limited travel dollars.”
In 2011, online and traditional travel agents processed $136 billion of total travel sales, Peck estimated, including 144 million trips, of which $95 billion was sold by traditional agents. Of this $95 billion, air travel represented $60 billion (or 45 percent of the market) worth of air travel.
“Travel agents seek to be a source of information and purchase for optional services for the millions of travelers they serve, but travel agents cannot disclose that to which they do not have access. It is absurd to suggest that travel agents can simply hunt down the ancillary fee information, transaction-by-transaction, on hundreds of airline websites whenever they need to know, particularly if they have a customer waiting on the phone.”
“Forcing agents to research manually and repetitively over such a broad network of carriers would impose a huge and unacceptable increase in the time it takes an agent to conduct a comparative analysis of flight/fare/fee options on behalf of an inquiring customer,” Peck said. Peck noted that ASTA has a substantial interest in consumer protection issues and has long been a regular participant in DOT consumer protection proceedings.
“Even when travel agencies have managed to find accurate information about ancillary fees for its customers, they cannot consummate the entire transaction. This often deprives the consumer of the chance to save money by paying in advance for bag fees or to reserve the seats needed for the convenient transportation of family members.”
“And, of course, consumers who try to buy a ticket from a travel agent, because they value the advice they get, and separately buy optional services from the airline, will incur additional search costs and will often find the seat reservations or other optional services they wanted unavailable.”
“Failure to require the airlines to share their ancillary fee data will leave literally millions of consumers without the ability to use their preferred channel and have the benefit of full comparative price shopping,” Peck said.
ASTA’s Peck strongly urged the committee to submit a recommendation to the Secretary of Transportation that the upcoming passenger protection rulemaking - expected this fall -include a requirement for full transparency and transactability of airline optional services and fees.