Cuba, air travel disclosures and the overtime exemption led the agenda at a recent legislative event hosted by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).
Over 100 travel agents from across the country went to Capitol Hill Wednesday as part of the ASTA’s inaugural Capitol Summit, in which travel agents took part in over 100 House and Senate Congressional meetings on critical issues facing the corporate and leisure travel economy.
“It’s really important for legislators to meet the names and faces of the people who put them in office and are watching how they vote on travel issues,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents, in a written release. “By showing them who we are, who we employ, and that we are paying attention the government will understand that travel agents watch out for the traveling public. We’re going to fight onerous legislation that is anti-consumer or that impacts our agents business in a negative way”.
Here are the top three of ASTA’s priorities at the meetings:
Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act
Cuba was a hot topic on the agenda, with ASTA using the event to promote the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, calling on Congress to do away with the “travel ban” on the country once and for all.
The bipartisan bill was introduced in late May and marked the first time a majority of senators supported a bill to fully lift all restrictions on travel from the U.S. to Cuba. The bill received 55 out of 100 votes, still falling short of the 60 votes required to advance the legislation.
At the same time, the legislation comes at a time when it is rumored that President Donald Trump is looking to reverse the Obama administration's move to loosen travel restrictions to the country. Those rumors drew criticism from Caribbean specialists we spoke with earlier this month.
ASTA argued that lifting the travel restrictions would allow Americans to act as “ambassadors of freedom and American values abroad,” as well as bring economic benefits to Cuba’s neighbors and the travel industry by sparking demand for new passenger routes, tour packages and travel agent services. ASTA estimated that at least two million additional Americans would visit Cuba by 2019 if there were to be a full lifting of travel restrictions this year.
ASTA noted that the prospect that the upcoming FAA reauthorization could bring with it proposals to add to the list of mandated disclosures travel agents are required to make to consumers when selling air travel was among its major concerns. At the meeting travel agents asked Congress to consider ways to lessen the impact of new disclosures on the travel agency community.
According to ASTA’s most recent member survey, 62 percent of member interactions with their clients take place over the phone or face-to-face, so a substantial portion of travel agency transactions would be particularly impacted under any new, expanded disclosure regime. As an example ASTA noted that when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was developing its rules in 2008 for collecting Secure Flight data, for every phone transaction, it came up with an estimated economic impact to travel agents of approximately $20 million per year, or $232 million over 10 years.
ASTA suggested exempting travel agents altogether, exempting phone and face-to-face transactions, using the Small Business Administration’s size standards to “carve out” small businesses, or directing consumers to a single website covering relevant rules and policies as potential ways of mitigating any impact on travel agents.
The Overtime Exemption
During the meetings ASTA also promoted the Travel Agent Retail Fairness Act (H.R. 2515), which was introduced in mid-May by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) and cosponsored by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV). The new legislation would strike travel agencies from a Department of Labor (DOL) regulatory “blacklist” preventing agencies from claiming an exemption to Department of Labor overtime rules.
Allowing travel agencies to take advantage of this exemption has been a long-running legislative goal of ASTA, which noted that the proposal would treat travel agencies like any other retail business. ASTA also estimated the move would help preserve 100,000 travel agency jobs by protecting agency owners against audits and lawsuits while giving them the flexibility to better serve their clients.