Tuesday Briefing: ASTA Says Trump Ban Having “Chilling Effect” on Travel Industry

Uncertainty over President Donald Trump’s travel ban is making its impact felt on travel agents, according to a press call with Eben Peck, SVP, government and industry affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). During the call Peck took the opportunity to talk about the impact of the executive order on travel agents, as well as ASTA’s top legislative priorities regarding the new administration. 

“The way that this was implemented and all the confusion that created is having an impact, it’s clear, beyond the people from just these seven countries,” says Peck. “It’s having a chilling effect on the travel industry generally.”

“We definitely have clients rethinking their plans and had a cancellation just today from a client as a direct result of this ban —  a client who is a U.S. resident with a green card and is from India (not one of the stated seven countries) was advised by their attorney to cancel their plans to be out of the U.S. for fear that they couldn’t get back in given the situation,” said Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder and CEO of Ciao Bambino! Inc. in a statement provided by ASTA to Travel Agent. “So they’ve cancelled their trip to Europe that was booked with us.”

“I have had a client traveling to the Bahamas next week email me about her mother not wanting her to leave the country, because what if she couldn't get back in,” said Julie Imgrund, president at Bellevue Travel. “She is a U.S. citizen and holds a U.S. passport... I explained as much, and told her, if her mom still was worried, her mom can call me.”

“People are getting questions about Mexico, and of course Mexico has nothing to do with the order, but our members are hearing concerns about how Americans will be perceived abroad,” says Peck. “We’re concerned it might start having a real impact on members’ businesses.”

“We have not had any European or Asian trips impacted,” said Travel Borden, owner of Walt’s Dream Destinations, LLC. “We have had questions from clients looking to travel or who are traveling to Mexico. Though Mexico is not impacted, we are getting numerous queries about the possibility of travel being impacted because of ‘the wall’.”

Travel agents looking to travel abroad, too, have been impacted by the policy. “I have an agent who is a U.S. citizen, grew up here, but she was born in Syria so often is questioned by other countries when she travels, she is concerned that now she’ll be questioned when returning to the U.S. as well, even though traveling on a U.S. passport,” said Heidi Hoehn, general manager - Pasadena at TravelStore. “There is a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety for us all.”

At the same time, the views of ASTA members on the ban itself is split. ASTA has commissioned a survey diving deeper into what its member agents think of the new policy that will be released soon. The organization remains critical, however, of the way in which the policy was implemented. 

“Uncertainty is bad for the travel industry, and this has created a lot of uncertainty,” says Peck. 

New Rules From the Department of Transportation and Department of Labor

With a new administration in office, ASTA is also taking this time to lay out its legislative priorities for other government policies that impact travel agents. 

In the last three months of the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation put out a significant number of regulatory actions, from final rules to proposed rules to requests for information, explains Peck. On its first day in office the new administration put out a regulatory freeze memo that stopped any new regulations from moving forward, but ASTA is continuing to submit comments on DOT requests for information that impact travel agents. 

The first involves a rule requiring customers who pay a baggage fee to have that fee refunded in the event their bag is delayed a certain amount of time. 

“ASTA’s position is that if a customer is due a refund from an airline, it’s the responsibility of the airline to provide that refund, not the travel agent,” says Peck. 

The next issue is voice calls in flight — if they should be allowed, and, if so, who bears the responsibility for informing travelers. 

“The DOT’s proposed rule said that it’s up to airlines whether or not they allow calls in flight but that consumers must be told at the point of sale if calls will be allowed,” says Peck. Peck says that that disclosure requirement should not be applied to travel agents, and that ASTA members are unanimous that calls should not be allowed on flights. 

Airline ancillary fees remain a hot topic, and another proposal had travel agents being required to inform consumers of bag fees, but did not require consumers to be able to transact those fees through travel agents. “We’d been pushing for transactability,” says Peck, referring to the ability of agents to sell these fees, “and we’re going to push for that again.”

The final hot issue is the Department of Labor’s proposed changes to overtime rules that would have more than doubled the threshold at which workers are eligible for overtime. While that rule is now on hold after a federal court decision issued over Thanksgiving, ASTA is taking this opportunity to attempt to overturn an older overtime policy involving travel agents. 

“In 1970 the Department of Labor put out a list, which we call the blacklist, that said that the following industries cannot claim an exemption from the overtime rule,” says Peck. “Travel agencies are on that list.”

ASTA feels that agencies should qualify for an exemption to overtime rules because they are retail businesses, and Peck points out that, in a 1997 court challenge, a travel agency was able to win an exemption from the DOL. ASTA submitted a formal petition to allow travel agencies to qualify for an overtime exemption in August that was denied in the final days of the Obama administration. 

“We still find it objectionable, and we have a plan this year with a presumably friendlier Department of Labor,” says Peck. “We’ve already started having meetings on Capitol Hill, and their advice is to refile the petition once the new Labor Secretary gets in.”

ASTA is also looking to find Congressional champions to introduce a bill to get travel agencies off the blacklist, and the organization hopes to have a bill introduced before its legislative day in June. 

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