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Keep an Eye on These Consumer Travel Issues in 2015

You can expect some resolution of five big consumer issues in travel this year. You may not like the results, but at least you’ll get results. Last week I joined a group of consumer advocate colleagues in Washington, where we covered a list of some two dozen issues and identified those most likely to be resolved before the end of the year.

New Distribution Capability (NDC): From an overall industry standpoint, NDC is by far the “hottest” current issue. The term refers to a new data-transmission standard, developed by the International Air Transport Association and based on XTML, that will allow various travel sellers and buyers to obtain and use far more information than the present system allows. Currently, most travel agencies and fare search systems rely on the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) such as Sabre for fare data, which they then process and publish. But GDS data are currently limited, for the most part, to just base fares; if you want information on ancillary fees, you have to go to an airline website. NDC, on the other hand, will allow everyone to see both fares and fees and to sell those ancillary services along with the base fares.

I won’t go into the intricate pulling and hauling among the various industry segments. Instead, as I understand it, the primary consumer interest is to assure that every air-travel seller should be able to post the cost of a trip, beyond just airfare, to include, at a minimum, one checked bag, one carry-on bag, and a reserved seat.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has already approved the base proposal. What remains is to determine the implementation details.

Transparent Airfares Act: Last year, this Orwellian-named legislation passed the House without debate or formal vote. This really bad anti-consumer bill, if enacted, would allow airlines to display airfares, excluding taxes and fees—maybe even excluding airline-imposed fees, depending on how they read the language. The semi-good news is that, in private conversations, some of the representatives who sponsored and supported the bill have admitted that the airline lobbyists who sold them on the bill misrepresented it. This is not to say that it won’t pass again this year, but at least you’ll see some opposition in the House, possibly in the Senate, and possibly a presidential veto. We’re working on those angles.

Hotel Resort Fees: You know the scam: Hotels slice $5 to $30 off the true cost of a room, label it a “resort fee,” show a laundry list of stuff it supposedly covers, and add it back in later in the buying process. Of course, that list is phony, because once a fee is mandatory, it’s part of the price; the real purpose of this process is to make rooms look less expensive than they really are in side-by-side comparisons. The scam is quite prevalent in Hawaii, California, Florida, ski centers, and nearby islands.

In theory, hotel pricing comes under the purview of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), but the FTC works at glacial speed and does not have enforcement authority. Last year, in an attempted end-run around the FTC, I petitioned the DOT to require airlines selling air-hotel bundles to include the full hotel cost, including mandatory fees, in bundle pricing. We’re now pursuing this approach with the DOT.

Frequent-Flyer Programs: Last year, Rep. Alan Grayson (D, Florida) asked the DOT inspector general to determine whether frequent-flyer programs are unfair and deceptive. Consumer advocates are feeding information to the investigators, but nobody is predicting the outcome.

Excessive Ticket-Change Fees: Ticket-change fees up to $700 are, on their face, excessive, but to date the DOT has chosen not to enforce existing laws requiring that such fees be “reasonable.” Within a month or so, consumer activists will take some action asking the DOT to correct this abuse.

Although we didn’t discuss it, don’t be surprised to see the United States adopt a more protectionist attitude about international airline service. “Open Skies” may close up a bit as U.S. airlines worry about competition from Norwegian and the big Gulf lines.

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

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