Travel agencies that operate Internet flight-search tools will need to cope with new Department of Transportation (DOT) rules detailed in a DOT guidance document. "The guidance addresses how such agencies should disclose in search results those carriers it does not market, and thus does not consider in its search process, may have flights meeting the specific parameters entered by the user," ASTA said.
DOT’s guidance states that the Department will consider it an unfair practice for a travel agent to simply report that “no flight exists that matches” the consumer’s criteria, ASTA said. The guidance will be enforced.
"The problem arises because there might be carriers whose services were not searched by the agent’s website search engine but that might have flights responsive to the criteria. DOT is saying that while agents are not required to include flights from all airlines in search processes, consumers may be misled by the simple 'no flights exist' message when there are in fact such flights available," ASTA said in its analysis.
ASTA notes that DOT has stated examples of search results language that, without qualification, will be considered unfair or deceptive if an airline not marketed by the ticket agent offers a flight matching the consumer’s search criteria: “no flights are available,” “no nonstop flights are available,” “no flights match your search criteria,” and “no results were found.”
According to DOT, “a ticket agent could lawfully use such language only when no airline—including those not covered by the online search—offers a flight matching a consumer’s criteria," ASTA said. DOT has provided a path to a solution to this issue, ASTA notes:
“The (DOT) Enforcement Office would not consider it to be unfair or deceptive a message making clear that the ticket agent only displays search results from airlines that it markets and that a search producing no results does not necessarily mean that other airlines do not offer flights matching the search criteria. For example, the following language would not be unfair or deceptive: “no flights are available from the airlines we search,” “no nonstop flights are available from airlines covered by this website,” “no flights offered by airlines included on our website match your search criteria,” or “a search of the airlines listed on this website [include hyperlink to list of airlines covered] yielded no results.”
The DOT has provided a 90-day window, starting August 19, 2013, for agencies with search engines to come into compliance with the guidance, ASTA notes. Agencies that fail to do so will be subject to enforcement action by DOT under its authority to prevent unfair and deceptive practices.