Open Allies Defends Agents and Consumers

In a strong defense of travel agents and consumers, the Open Allies for Airfare Transparency (Open Allies) took aim at the airline's policy toward Global Distribution Systems (GDS).

In a letter to Ray LaHood, secretary, Department of Transportation (DOT), Arthur Sackler, executive director, Open Allies, took exception to the content of an April 19, 2012 letter to LaHood from Airlines for America, IATA and seven other airline organizations.

The airline groups expressed opposition to a proposal to mandate that airlines serving the United States distribute all content and services through GDSs. The issue has global ramifications for agents, GDS's, air carriers and consumers.

"We are not aware that the Department is considering any such proposal, nor are we asking the Department to adopt such a proposal," Open Allies said. "They are effectively creating a 'straw man' argument that we would respectfully suggest is a distraction from the real issue: fairness to air travel consumers," Open Allies' Sackler said.

Open Allies, a coalition of nearly 400 travel agencies, consumer groups, corporate travel managers, GDSs, and travel associations says it has not asked the DOT to anything more than to build on its existing consumer protection rules.

"This will ensure that online and traditional travel agencies, and all other channels through which airline services are sold, are provided with transparent, transactable and dynamically updated airline fee data, enabling true comparison shopping and consumer choice," Open Allies said.

"Unfortunately, such a rule is needed because airlines have chosen not to share their ancillary fees, as they do with their base fares, in a manner that allows dynamic electronic disclosure and thus facilitates comparative shopping and purchasing by consumers through agency channels or other points of sale of their choosing," Open Allies says.

"Today, if an airline does business with a GDS or travel agent, that airline is required to disclose through those distribution partners their code share arrangements as well as changes to aircraft gauge; the situation with ancillary services should be no different. In fact, we would argue that sharing ancillary fee data is likely more relevant to a consumers' purchasing decision than code share or gauge information."

Open Allies noted that it has points of agreement with the signers of the April 19 letter. "Open Allies shares the view that airlines should be able to 'utilize any distribution channel they chose as long as in doing so they meet the letter and spirit of  shared commitment to transparency,' and should not be 'obliged to contract with GDS.'"

"Open Allies does not seek a rule requiring any airline to contract with any distribution channel. But once an airline has chosen to utilize a distribution channel, fairness to consumers demands that it share ancillary service and fee data in a comprehensive, transactable and dynamically updated manner through that channel."

"That is, the airline should make all, not some, of the information about a particular itinerary available to the consumer, and enable him or her to buy all, not some, of at least the 'core' (baggage, seating, boarding) services associated with that itinerary, through that channel."

Open Allies said it knows that the DOT is committed to price transparency for consumers and applauded LaHood's personal efforts to improve the treatment of consumers on a number of fronts, including price transparency.

"What we propose for the forthcoming (DOT) rule making is to close the gap between existing rules and the full restoration of comparison shopping that consumers have been deprived of since aggressive airline product unbundling began in 2008." DOT rulemaking is expected later this year.

"The roughly fifty percent of consumers who use the agency or other intermediary channels should be as informed and empowered as those who buy directly from airlines. That is, they should have full access to ancillary services and related fees, and the ability to purchase the complete air transportation product in a setting that promotes disclosure, convenience and competition," Open Allies says.