Some travel industry firsts are better left uncelebrated.
Delta Air Lines, the first carrier to cap commissions, would rather not be remembered for its infamous move. And partner Virgin Atlantic Airways wouldn’t want the industry to recognize it as the first airline to get nabbed for false advertising on the Web.
The Department of Transportation took the first major government-imposed action against illegal online advertising by entering into a consent degree with Virgin in November 1995. The airline paid $14,000 for not disclosing some flight costs on its Web site and listing a fare that was no longer available.
Virgin’s offense wasn’t serious in the scheme of things-after all, rates on the mercurial CRSs change almost as quickly as stock prices during trading hours. Updating a Web page is a time-consuming task, too. But the feds wanted to make an example of the airline, and an example they made.
What have we learned from the Virgin case? Plenty.
First, that the government is dead serious about asserting its authority in cyberspace. The Transportation Department later moved against Southwest Airlines, reaching another consent decree in a similar action. The fact that Virgin Atlantic and Southwest are travel companies seems to have been a coincidence.
Need more proof of Uncle Sam’s resolve? Consider what U.S. legislators did in February 1996. When the Telecommunications Act was signed into law, it promised to curb obscenity on the Internet, to bring a sense of order to the spaghetti of networks and users that defied both order and law. The bill would have made it a crime punishable by $250,000 in fines and two years in prison to send “indecent” material that could be viewed by a minor over a computer network.
The second lesson is one Webmasters and MIS directors everywhere took to heart almost as soon as the Virgin fine became public: look before you leap. Just because the technology is there to post fares, rates, or new programs on a Web site, that doesn’t mean that they should be posted. Every new corporate ad usually goes through a rigorous approval process; why not a Web page, too?
Of all the things learned from the Virgin incident, perhaps the most important is that a Web site can’t be an afterthought. It can’t be left in the hands of a few twentysomething Web consultants. It must become an integral part of a company’s marketing efforts.
Lest anyone doubt the government’s intentions, let’s consider the post-Virgin actions by the U.S. government. In April, 1996, the long arm of the law struck again. In what the Federal Trade Commission described as “a wholesale crackdown on deceptive marketing” on the Internet, it went after companies that it said made promises such as “guaranteed credit repair,” violated its Telephone Order Merchandise Rule, or failed to deliver products ordered by customers.
Now the FTC is being asked to investigate big advertisers such as Kellogg, Nabisco, and Frito Lay that operate Web sites geared toward children. The Center for Media Education recently charged that kids are being subjected to manipulative advertising in cyberspace. Joining CME was the National Parent-Teacher Association, which protested the use of Web sites to collect demographic information about children.
Whether or not the government clamps down on these corporations, it seems Washington has already set forth a zero-tolerance policy for companies or individuals who think they can bend the conventional advertising rules when they’re online. And interactive travel professionals are no exception.