Consumer Advocate: Privacy Is Important for Travelers And Travel Agents

codeIs the travel industry and travel agents doing enough to protect consumer data? This is one of the questions recently raised by consumer advocate Charles Leocha. 

Privacy matters to travelers from a security point of view, both personal and financial, says Leocha, a founder of Travelers United Consumer Report, who urges vigilance. "Travel records tell a lot about travelers and privacy rules and regulations are few and far between."

Leocha says information airlines and other travel providers keep about travelers matters especially as they seek, in the future, to personalize pricing and marketing. "Consumers should have a system in place that would require all travel providers to tell consumers what information the industry is holding about them."
If nothing else, Leocha says in a recent feature, consumers would be able to make sure that the information is accurate, even if they have no control over how the information is used.

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"It doesn’t take much consideration to realize that the security of travel data is important, very important. It contains forms of payment, passport information, reservations on all types of transportation, lodging, preferences, back-up information and more," he notes.

And now, Leocha notes, the airline industry via the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is proposing new technology standards that would allow airlines and, eventually, other travel providers to create “personalized prices” for travelers. IATA's New Distribution Capability could change marketing of travel and the amount and depth of consumer data.

"In other words, the airline or hotel would be able to look at travel data and combine it with third-party information that they can purchase. After examining data such as the value of your home, your annual income, where you went to school, what kind of car you drive, etc., then mixing it up with the data that they have in their own IT systems, travel providers hope to be able to offer individuals the perfect price," he says.

"Voila! An airline could serve passengers very personal prices with exactly the ancillary services that they should want. We passengers wouldn’t even have to think. The airlines would do our thinking for us. Heck, if IT advances and databases become powerful enough, the entire trip planning system can be automated and our vacations may be planned from start to finish on what personal data shows we might want," he says.

"Of course, there is another way to look at personalization or customized pricing — that would be to put the customer in charge of customizing their own palette of flights and services that we select for ourselves. Of course, that would require the airlines and other travel providers to make available to us a useable menu of services and prices that airlines still refuse to provide in a form where total prices can be compared across the industry."

Airlines, hotels, rental cars, tour operators, cruise lines and other sectors of the travel industry all operate via giant information technology (IT) networks, he notes. "Each operator has their own network and each operator is plugged into even larger networks that allow passengers to access information about their travels from every corner of the world."

The government’s creation of rules and regulations about privacy are split between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Transportation (DOT), he says. He believes the FTC sets privacy rules for most of the economy and many travel providers such as hotels, cruise lines and rental cars. DOT is responsible for setting privacy rules for airlines and ticket agents that include the giant central reservation systems that span the world and connect all travel reservations.

Leocha notes that last year, Travelers United was a lead consumer group that resulted in the first-ever privacy discussions among consumers, the FTC, DOT, airlines, travel agents and computer operators before the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections. The work is ongoing, with meetings to be scheduled with airlines and other privacy groups, he says.

To support his view Leocha  quotes Senator John D. Rockefeller's (D.WV) letter to airlines expressing his concern as Senate Commerce Committee chair about transparency in airlines fees and how airlines protect collection of consumers’ personal information.

Leocha quotes from the letter: "Currently, there is no federal privacy law that covers the collection, use, and disclosure of consumer travel information. Because of this gap in federal law, consumer advocates have expressed concern that airline privacy policies can contain substantial caveats and that it is difficult for consumers to learn what information airlines and others in the travel sector are collecting, keeping, and sharing about them. Rockefeller’s inquiry also seeks to address this concern."