A new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Bill, introduced last week, could introduce a number of new regulations for travel agencies and make it harder to comparison-shop for airfares, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) warn.
In a letter to several key members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure shared with Travel Agent, ASTA noted that Section 405 of the new bill would effectively overturn the 2012 full-fare advertising rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which would allow airlines to advertise a lower base airfare, minus taxes and ancillary fees.
“Repealing the DOT’s full-price rule would undermine a key consumer protection principle ASTA holds hear -- that consumers should know the full cost of air travel before purchasing a ticket,” ASTA wrote. While airlines have contended that the rule “hides” government taxes within the total price, ASTA noted that the rule allows individual price components, such as taxes and fees, to be listed separately, so long as the total price is displayed most prominently.
The bill also contains a provision that would require travel agencies to disclose that a destination country may require the air carrier to treat an aircraft passenger cabin with insecticides, which ASTA argued would add to the numerous disclosures travel agents must already make when selling air travel -- which can have a bigger impact on over-the-phone transactions -- and would add to agencies’ regulatory burden and risk of DOT fines.
Finally, the bill includes a number of new customer service standards that would apply to ticket agents with $100 million in annual revenue.
“The rationale for these provisions is unclear to us, given that the number of customer service complaints filed with DOT against airlines dwarfs the number filed against travel agents -- 1,397 to 40 according to the DOT’s March 2018 air travel consumer report,” ASTA wrote.
ASTA also said that travel agencies face fare more competition than airlines, allowing consumers to more easily take their business elsewhere in the case of a customer service issue, and are also subject to state and local regulations regarding customer service, which is not the case for airlines.
The BTC also took issue with the new customer service standards, arguing that they are “plainly designed to kill off independent providers of neutral travel information” and, by doing so, reduce consumers’ ability to easily comparison shop for air travel. The BTC argues that the regulations require ticket agents to perform all the transactions airlines do through their websites, even though these transactions depend on the cooperation of the airlines -- “something they can and have withheld,” the BTC said. For example, the new rules require the following:
- Provide prompt refunds, including fees for optional services that customers purchased but were unable to use due to a flight cancellation or oversale. The BTC noted that airlines control oversales and do not provide information on the passengers they remove from flights.
- Provide an option to hold a reservation at the quoted fare without payment, or to cancel without penalty, for 24 hours. The BTC said that airlines have a proposal pending before DOT to eliminate this policy.
- Disclose cancellation policies, seating configurations and lavatory availability, which the BTC said airlines can change due to weather conditions, equipment substitutions and other operational events.
- Notify customers in a timely manner of itinerary changes, which are also under airline control and subject to change, according to the BTC.
- Respond promptly to customer complaints. The BTC noted that the vast majority of complaints are with airline service, not ticket agents.