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Consumer Travel Issues: Midyear Status Report

What’s the current status of the major consumer issues in travel? Here’s a quick overview:

Transparent Airfares Act: Although you may not have noticed much recent movement on this noxious proposal, my friends in Washington expect it to come up for a vote in the full House this month. Ahead of a vote, Consumer Traveler’s petition against the bill now has more than 126,000 signatures, which it plans to sort by district to let each member of Congress know how many constituents don’t like the bill. But given its indifference to consumer issues, the House may pass it anyhow, so advocate groups are also working on consumer-friendly senators. Although the focus of this bill, exclusion of taxes and government fees from posted airfares, seems relatively innocuous, consumer advocates fear that it’s just the first skirmish in an all-out attack on all DOT consumer protections.

Excessive Ticket-Change Charges: Although the DOT has no authority to regulate domestic fees, it does have legal authority to require that fees on international air tickets be “reasonable.” At levels up to $700, current fees are clearly not reasonable, and consumers are being hurt by these excessive charges. The petition asking DOT to reconsider its ill-advised prior refusal to act is still open for comments, which would be welcome: Log onto and enter DOT-OST-2012-0109.

Resolution 787: No, this isn’t about Boeing’s 787 “Dreamliner,” it’s a proposal that would require airlines, global distribution systems, and online travel agencies to post more information on various optional fees and charges throughout the search process than they do now. Currently, the industry hasn’t coalesced around any position, and my take is that the potential for confusing complexity in fare searches is as much of a worry as insufficient information. Although industry insiders are staking out varied positions, this issue represents a golden opportunity for an innovative metasearch engine: Design a system where, to start a search, you’d enter your trip details plus all of the optional extras you might want, and the search display could then return each airline’s total cost for each flight, with extras, on the first screen. So far, however, no big search system seems interested.

Norwegian’s Low-Fare Transatlantic Flights: The DOT is dragging its feet on approval of Norwegian’s proposals for expanded low-fare flights to Europe—most notably New York to London/Gatwick—mainly because of domestic opposition. U.S. airlines and their unions are fighting it on the basis that by basing its headquarters in Ireland, with its lax labor laws, Norwegian’s proposal would amount to exporting jobs, or, as some put it, “Walmarting” the transatlantic airline business. I don’t agree: Norwegian is recruiting U.S. flight crews, and the giant lines have already “Walmarted” much of their offshore maintenance, reservations services, and such. At this point, I haven’t seen strong consumer support for Norwegian, but its proposed service would clearly benefit consumers.

Mandatory Hotel Fees: Washington-watchers are not surprised at how slowly the Federal Trade Commission is moving ahead with its “effort” on this issue. You’d think the simple principle, “If it’s mandatory, it’s part of the price,” would not pose much of an intellectual challenge, but it doesn’t seem to have filtered through yet. Accordingly, hotels are still posting false low-ball rates, and then subsequently adding mandatory resort, hospitality, concierge, and other fees. Some consumer advocates believe that a nudge from some key figures in Congress may be necessary.

Federal Preemption: The Airline Deregulation Act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, effectively insulates airlines from any sort of accountability to state laws on truth in advertising, consumer liability, and lots of other elements of their business. The Business Travel Coalition’s Kevin Mitchell takes the position that if the government reversed this “preemption” and required airlines to behave to the same standards that other businesses do, many of the other problems would disappear. I tend to agree, but I don’t see any groundswell pushing in this direction.

Takeaway: In sum, important consumer issues are in play, and it’s hard to predict any of the outcomes. As consumers, you can help with petitions and comments.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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