In a filing with the Department of Transportation (DOT) in response to its Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections final rule, ASTA spoke out on behalf of travel agents and the traveling public and asked that the DOT defer the implementation of two rules that mandate how travel agents disclose baggage fee information. ASTA said that the rules would negatively impact agents’ ability to remain competitive. Both rules are scheduled to become effective Aug. 23.
One of the mandates in question would require every travel agent with a consumer website to immediately refer the consumer to either airline websites, where the actual fees can be seen, or to another place within the agent’s website if the baggage fee information is available once they have selected a specific itinerary, ASTA said.
The second would apply to all e-ticket confirmations issued by a travel agent at the completion of an online purchase or post-purchase email confirmations and would require that each include (1) the passenger’s free baggage allowance and (2) the fee for a carry-on bag and first and second checked bags.
“ASTA supports disclosure of ancillary fees to consumers on agency websites or e-ticket confirmations, as the rules designate, but we are against rules that will incentivize more agencies to stop selling airline tickets altogether, further restricting consumers’ option in how they purchase air travel,” said Chris Russo, ASTA president and chair.
“We remain committed to working with the DOT to find a practical solution and fully support the DOT’s stance in forcing airlines to provide stronger consumer protection," Russo said.
In its petition, ASTA notes that “the desire for speedy action regarding airline practices related to baggage fees should not override the goals of providing an efficient, non-repetitive process for implementing all of the rules related to ancillary fees and avoiding commercial harm to retail firms that support such robust consumer protection rules.”
The petition goes on to say:
"Travel agencies, like airlines, should not be required to adopt practices that are “error prone, confuse passengers, and destroy efficiencies."
And we cannot fail to note the irony of airlines arguing that “providing different baggage notice fee standards for different methods of purchase creates an uneven approach that will confuse passengers and treat regulated entities differently” while strenuously resisting any regime that would require them to provide ancillary fee information to travel agencies in a useable automated format, ASTA said.
"Manually obtaining the information is impractical because of the cost of manpower to achieve it initially and the manpower cost of constantly monitoring all airline websites for updates. The irony of this is inescapable – thousands of man hours of work, fraught with probability of error, to manually collect information that is readily available in electronic format but deliberately withheld by airlines, a major step backward. No agency could afford to do this without significant increases in fees it charges to consumers and damage to its reputation and business every time the information turns out to be out-of-date. And customer frustration with the need to wade through pages of rules to find out what their real baggage fees are will be palpable."
"If the end result of that rulemaking is a requirement that airlines provide ancillary fee information to travel agencies through GDSs, all of the issues involving massive manual labor, error-prone procedures and risk of inaccuracies will be eliminated. If the Department chooses another path, the consequences will have to be assessed, but it should not, in the meantime, impose huge costs and high risks on the retail distribution system while it concludes its analysis of the future course. The travel agency community is not responsible for the airlines’ refusal to share the ancillary fee information and should not bear the costs of an interim solution."
"The magnitude of programming and other costs to either manually collect and display the data or the costs to screen-scrape the information will be very large, beyond the means of most small and medium sized agencies. If those costs are large for the airlines, they will be gigantic for travel agencies."
"The best course forward is to defer implementation of the rule until its implications can be thoroughly debated during the supplemental rulemaking. By that approach there will be one set of disclosure rules adopted at the same time that will have the benefit of full vetting of commercial, technical and legal feasibility," ASTA said.
To read the full petition,visit www.ASTA.org.