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Consumer Issues in Travel: Status Report

SmarterTravel

Several consumer initiatives from late last year and early 2015 are wending their way through the system. So far, I’ve seen no results; these issues always take longer than they should. But the bigger problem is that all of the pending issues deal with airlines, one way or another; cruisers and hotel guests are still hanging out to dry.

Airlines

Five main initiatives asking for improved consumer protections for air travelers are in the works:

  • Excessive change fees on international tickets: Flyers Rights is spearheading this one, requesting that the Department of Transportation (DOT) fulfill its legal requirement to ensure that such charges are “reasonable.” The docket is open for comments; of the 27 comments filed so far, all support the push for reasonable fees. No airlines or airline lobbyists have so far contributed anything officially. If you’re interested in commenting, log onto regulations.gov, enter DOT-OST-2015-0031 in the search field, and have at it.
  • Deceptive air/hotel package pricing: This one is mine; it’s an end-around attack on deceptive hotel fees. No agency can regulate deceptive hotel advertising the way DOT can with airline deceptions, so I can’t accomplish much directly. But DOT says that airlines must present full prices of air travel and any travel service, including air travel, so when airlines omit mandatory hotel “resort fees” from their posted prices for air-hotel packages they’re not following established DOT rules. Although I submitted my petition two years ago, the docket is still open. Comment at DOT-OST-2013-0058.
  • Frequent-flyer-program abuses: Here, the ball is in the court of the DOT’s inspector general, who was asked by a senator to investigate various abuses. I don’t have any direct input, nor do I have any point of contact, but my consumer advocate friends in Washington tell me that the investigation is proceeding.
  • Protectionism: After many years of promoting “open skies” when it strengthened their competitive positions, big U.S. airlines are now urging the government to cancel or modify existing open skies agreements: They’re afraid of competition from Norwegian and especially from the big Gulf lines, Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar. The Business Travel Coalition (BTC) has organized a group, openskies.travel, to support open competition. Join online if you’re interested.
  • Unjustified airline fees: BTC has also officially asked the DOT to investigate airline “fuel surcharges” and “carrier imposed fees” that are often higher than what the airlines claim is the base fare. As I’ve often noted, splitting the true ticket price into phony “base fare” and “fee” components is a scam. Although the scam currently doesn’t affect ticket purchase by ordinary travelers, it does scam them on supposedly “free” frequent-flyer award travel, companion tickets, and some vouchers, and it scams some business travelers. BTC did not submit its request as a formal petition, so there is no docket open for comments.

The Others

Unfortunately, no federal agency has as much clout over hotels, cruise lines, and car rental companies as DOT has over airlines. As a result, consumers who buy those travels services are getting the short end of the stick. The fundamental problem with all these other segments of the industry is total lack of accountability. Suppliers may promise lots of good stuff, but their contracts give them enough wiggle room to accommodate a large truck when they don’t perform as they promise:

  • The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) publishes a “bill of rights” with lots of promises but no consequences to cruise lines or consumer compensation when a line fails to deliver on the promises.
  • The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) doesn’t even bother with a bill of rights: Sure, there are a few unofficial and often ignored industry practices, but no hotel is legally required to “walk” you if it is oversold.
  • Similarly, rental car companies face no consequences when they can’t deliver the car you’ve reserved.

All in all, lack of accountability is a major problem—and will remain so until consumers raise enough of a clamor to force action. Don’t hold your breath until that happens.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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