Renegade travel agent brings ticket pricing fight to America

By | August 22nd, 2008

What’s the most maddening thing about airfares? Probably the pricing. You’re offered a low “base” fare, only to have fees, taxes and surcharges tacked on to it. By the time it’s all added up, the fare has doubled. Why can’t they just quote an all-inclusive price to begin with?

That’s what Stanley Gyoshev, who founded the online travel agency Lessno with Assen Vassilev, thought. So they did something about it. They successfully lobbied the European Union to change its pricing rules. Now they’re setting their sight on the United States. I recently spoke with Gyoshev about his efforts to change the way travelers buy tickets.

Q: How did you get the EU to change its airfare rules?

Gyoshev: We have always fought for fairness and disclosure, so when the Meglena Kuneva, the European Union Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, announced that she was going to examine Web sites selling air travel products for such shenanigans, we prepared and presented a policy brief explaining how the interest of the consumers in the air travel could be protected.

Commissioner Kuneva and the members of her cabinet responded so well to our brief and our recommendations and analysis that us in the joint working group of the Directorate Generals of Health and Consumers and General Energy and Transport in drafting new legislation on the subject. The rest is history.

So due to the hard work of Commissioner Kuneva and her colleagues, all EU air travel Web sites are required to publish the total price for a standard ticket, so travelers can compare the prices.

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Q: It’s a little unusual to find a travel company pushing this kind of rule change. What’s with that?

Gyoshev: We were never just about the technology or the interface. Our vision was that we were going to be an agent of the traveler, not a travel agency, which most of the time represents some corporate airline interest, not the interests of the traveler. So the first thing we did was set out to design a site that would be user-friendly and would help people find what they define as the best possible trip: the shortest travel time, the greatest probability of arriving on time, only exchangeable and refundable tickets, or the cheapest price.

Q: Here in the U.S., the government has a “hands off” approach to the airline industry, and particularly to the way in which fees are broken out on the Web. How do you plan to change things?

Gyoshev: In the U.S., there is no central agency which has the single role of protecting consumers, so there are several ways in which this could happen. For one, the federal government could increase consumer protection by using laws relating to unfair advertising — by insisting that airlines only advertise products and pricing which is readily available to the traveler without undue restrictions and red tape. The second is that since major international airlines are selling tickets in Europe, they will need to comply with the EU regulations. Since they need to make consumer friendly changes to their European Web sites and advertising, we are hoping there will be some carry-over to the U.S. sites.

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Q: Is there a non-regulatory way to compel airlines and travel agencies to quote a full price?

Gyoshev: Maybe. We are planning to actively monitor Web sites for airlines and airfare sellers in the U.S., and will offer consumers advice on the best products available on the market. We are also planning to talk with more reporters like you to teach consumers about the progress that has been made in Europe and that is possible for the U.S. as well. In the future, we may also undertake efforts to encourage Congress and the attorney generals to support the enforcement of fair advertising principles for the entire industry.

Q: What can the average traveler do to support these efforts to end this bait-and-switch scheme?

Gyoshev: The only way to end the bait-and-switch game is to stop supporting airlines and airfare sellers who practice this deceptive tactic. Travelers should spend the time to find a company they trust not to nickel and dime them with every fee and tax they can dream up. If a traveler comes across an especially misleading ad or fare listing, we invite them to email us or their state and federal representatives. If American travelers help us draw attention to this problem, we’ll be much better off in pushing for legislation similar to the new transparency law in Europe.

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