(Revised October 2014)
ASTA engages on important legislative and regulatory issues that affect our travel agent members. Below is a summary of the key federal initiatives that we have recently addressed or continue to monitor. If you would like more information on a specific issue, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, if you would like information on how you can participate in ASTAPAC, ASTA’s Political Action Committee, please see Support ASTAPAC.
On May 13, ASTA members took to Capitol Hill to elicit support for the Association’s top legislative priorities in promoting and defending the profession, looking out for the consumer and supporting the travel and tourism industry in general. During the event, nearly 40 travel professionals representing a broad range of agency business models met with their Members of Congress and staff to discuss ASTA’s legislative agenda, including (1) Opposing the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 (H.R.4156), which would repeal a Department of Transportation (DOT) rule that keeps the total price of a fare as transparent as possible for the traveling public; (2) Asking DOT to strengthen comparison shopping regarding ancillary services and fees so that consumers have full access to them when airlines unbundle their fares; (3) Ending discriminatory state and local taxes on car rentals; and (4) Increasing international travel to the U.S. through initiatives such as the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel Act, or “JOLT Act” (H.R. 1354), and the Travel Promotion, Enhancement, and Modernization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4450/S. 2250). ASTA members are encouraged to participate in Legislative Day 2015, tentatively scheduled for March 19, 2015. Stay tuned to ASTA.org for more details.
On September 29, following months of intensive analysis and consultation with its members and industry allies, ASTA filed formal comments on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) proposed consumer protection rules. The proposed rules, issued on May 21, would require airlines to provide agents with real-time information about core ancillary services and fees (but not that agents be allowed to sell these services to consumers). However, the rules would also impose detailed regulations on the operations of travel agencies despite no meaningful record of consumer mistreatment or dissatisfaction.
The key arguments in ASTA’s 96-page filing include: 1) DOT’s proposed solution to the ancillary fee problem (“transparency without transactability”) is inadequate; 2) Imposition of new customer service standards on large travel agents (annual revenue of $100 million or more) is not justified by the record or marketplace realities; 3) Current law does not empower DOT to regulate prices charged by travel agents, as portions of the proposed rule appear to do; 4) DOT’s proposed new definition of “ticket agent,” intended to capture “meta-search firms like Kayak and Google, needs more clarity so as not to include organizations that provide support services to travel agencies but do not deal directly with consumers, like consortia or host agencies; and 5) Any rule on disclosure of carriers marketed or not marketed on booking sites should be narrowly drawn.
The filing concludes with a plea for DOT to keep its eye on the ball and focus on the real harm that the current ancillary fee regime is causing consumers and lay aside the secondary issues that have been added to the docket: “The department should move swiftly to adopt rules requiring each airline to offer (1) full, timely, accurate and useable disclosure of ancillary service fees through GDSs to all points of sale at which the airline has arranged for the sale of its airfares, and (2) the ability for all intermediaries, including travel agencies, to transact such fees at the same time as the related airfares and on the same terms as those fees are offered for sale by the airline directly to consumers.” Other issues, ASTA notes, can be addressed in due course: “There is no evidence, cited in the [rulemaking] or otherwise known, to warrant treating those issues with the same expedition as the ancillary fee distribution problem.”
DOT will review all of the comments filed by today’s deadline as it crafts the final rule, expected to be issued in early- to mid-2015.
A full copy of ASTA’s filing can be viewed here.
For many years, DOT has required air carriers to provide certain information to passengers regarding the hazardous materials that are prohibited from being carried in check-in or carry-on baggage (i.e. paints, lighter fluid, fireworks). In 2011, having done no substantive outreach to airline distribution stakeholders, DOT issued a final rule effective Jan. 1, 2013 that requires this information to be provided at all points of ticket sale and will require a passenger to acknowledge such limitations before a ticket purchase can be finalized. ASTA successfully pushed for this effective date to be delayed until January 2015. These disclosure/acknowledgement requirements would add to existing passenger notification requirements travel agents have to comply with, including code-share, insecticide and others, and will saddle the industry with over $58 million in initial training and programming costs and $26 million per year in ongoing compliance costs.
On August 25, ASTA announced that DOT has decided to revise these rules to eliminate the acknowledgement requirement, and permits, as an option, the disclosure to be fulfilled by including a notice on the e-ticket confirmation. The DOT move is consistent with ASTA’s March 25 petition requesting that DOT rescind or modify the existing telephone and in-person requirements. While ASTA is pleased with this outcome, there is still work to be done. ASTA is a member of the Aviation Rulemaking Committee responsible for producing the industry guidance document on the new rules and will work with DOT to ensure that outstanding issues are addressed, including: drafting compliance instructions and disclosure language for ticket confirmations; consulting with our Global Distribution System (GDS) partners to determine how they can assist with ensuring the disclosure notice is provided with all passenger e-ticket receipts; clearly defining means for compliance with the new rule; and setting a reasonable adoption date.
On September 17, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation (H.R. 5462) to re-impose a cap on the aviation security fees that can be charged to passengers for a roundtrip flight. Until recently, passengers were charged $2.50 per enplanement with a maximum one-way trip fee of $5.00. A 2013 budget law simplified the fee structure to a flat, $5.60 fee per one-way trip, regardless of the number of enplanements, effective July 21, 2014, but was silent on whether there was a cap on fees for round-trips.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), whose budget is supported by these fees, interpreted the 2013 law as eliminating that cap despite the authors of the law making clear that they intended it to remain. This interpretation could result in charges of $20 or more for particularly complex routes and will cost fliers an estimated $60 to $70 million per year in new fees, according to Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), the sponsor of H.R. 5462. This legislation has been referred to the U.S. Senate, which could take it up during a post-election “lame duck” session. For more on this issue, consult ASTA member alerts from January and June 2014.
On the same day, May 21, DOT tentatively approved the application of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for approval of “Resolution 787,” which governs IATA’s “New Distribution Capability” initiative. Last year, ASTA had expressed concerns about NDC, calling it “a system that seems designed to raise airfares,” one that “gives the appearance of an unprecedented agreement among horizontal airline competitors on a new business model for the pricing and selling of airline tickets.” DOT’s approval of IATA Resolution 787, was subject to all of the conditions that ASTA developed with industry stakeholders, including IATA, and subsequently proposed to DOT in January. On August 6, DOT issued a final approval, subject to those conditions.
The approval includes several consumer safeguards designed to provide data privacy protection, ensure competition and consumer choice, and make clear the voluntary nature of XML-based transmission standard, which is an IATA-led initiative to improve communications between airlines and agents. Importantly, DOT has made it clear that anyone shopping online for air travel will not be required to disclose personal information.
DOT’s approval of Resolution 787 demonstrates the success of ASTA’s collaboration with IATA, Open Allies and other industry stakeholders. The development of NDC is a process that will take several more years to advance, and ASTA will continue to work collaboratively with IATA and other stakeholders to represent members’ interests. For more about the DOT’s NDC decision, click here.
For the past few years, ASTA has been working with the U.S. Travel Association, Brand USA and others on initiatives to increase international visitation to the U.S. While the number of global long-haul travelers increased by 61 million from 2000 to 2010, the number of overseas visitors to the United States stayed flat. This inability to keep pace has cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
ASTA is supporting two pieces of legislation to increase visitation to the U.S. – the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel Act, or “JOLT Act” (H.R. 1354) and the Travel Promotion, Enhancement, and Modernization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4450/S. 2250). The JOLT Act, which was incorporated into the Senate-passed immigration reform bill, includes provisions to streamline the visa and entry process for international visitors; expand of the Visa Waiver Program; reduce visa interview wait times; and increase international participation in the Global Entry program. The Travel Promotion, Enhancement, and Modernization Act, which would reauthorize Brand USA, a non-profit, public-private partnership dedicated to increasing inbound international travel to the United States, passed the House on July 23 by a vote of 347 to 57 and a Senate committee unanimously the same day.