Clueing in passengers

By | October 19th, 1998

The Right to Know Act is the right legislation – at the wrong time.

Rep. Peter DeFazio’s bill, introduced late last week, would basically require airlines and agents to stop misleading us.

The Oregon Democrat’s proposal forces airlines to disclose more about fares, frequent-flier award availability and an increasingly common industry practice called code-sharing. It also would make travel agents divulge any additional incentives they pocket for booking your trip.

Sound good? Don’t get too excited, because this bill is going nowhere at the moment. Congress adjourns any day now. And then there’s Lewinskygate, the imminent global depression, plus the Republican majority, whose priorities don’t necessarily include a set of tough new pro-consumer measures.

“We’re doing what we can,” DeFazio spokeswoman Kathie Eastman told me. “We’re going to re-introduce this first thing next year and try to attach it to must-pass legislation, like the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.”

Let’s hope it works. A cursory look at the Right to Know Act’s content-and its critics-makes a compelling case for the law (even to those of us who think nothing good ever comes out of Washington).

The American Society of Travel Agents hates this bill because it makes retailers reveal any incentives beyond garden-variety commissions. In agent-speak, these bonuses are sometimes called “overrides,” and they’re awarded to agents who sell more than a set number of tickets. The incentives don’t just generate more dollars. They also can result in free airline tickets, cruises and even cars. DeFazio suggests the freebies can taint an agent’s advice.

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“DeFazio is all wet,” gripes ASTA spokesman Steve Loucks. “These override arrangements are prevalent in many other industries, and to hold the travel industry up to a higher set of standards than everyone else is ludicrous.”

Loucks says it’s unfair to push for legislation against “one of the more beleaguered industries in the country” and suggests DeFazio might be “in the airlines’ back pocket.”

Travel agencies are hardly beleaguered, if you believe what you read. In a recent press release, the industry newspaper Travel Weekly declared that agents “more than held their own” last year, and despite recent commission cuts, raked in $126 billion. That’s a 25 percent jump from 1996. Editor Nadine Godwin smugly added, “Not too many industries can boast an average double-digit growth rate over the course of a decade-especially in this past 10 years.”

(Loucks says he meant to say the smaller “mom-and-pop” agents were the beleaguered ones, and sure enough Travel Weekly confirms that smaller agencies did take a hit. But not enough of one to think of the whole business as troubled.)

As for the contention that DeFazio is in cahoots with carriers, just listen to what the airline representatives have to say about his bill.

“It’s not realistic,” complains David Fuscus, spokesman for the Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C., referring to DeFazio’s idea to force airlines to post all available fares. “Air fares can change from minute to minute. People would find it frustrating to follow those changes. You couldn’t publish all the fares in a newspaper or anything like that, because they change so fast.”

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Not so, counters DeFazio. For example, airlines can offer last-minute Internet “specials” to agents and on its own phone reservations line, instead of reserving these tickets for the most wired passengers. In other words, if a carrier offers one price in one place, it ought to make it available everywhere possible. It’s not only realistic, he says, it’s also fair.

Similarly, airlines shouldn’t mislead passengers about who operates flights. The explosive growth of airline partnerships has resulted in lots of code-sharing agreements, where two or more carriers effectively “share” a flight.

“Many travelers do not realize they are traveling on a different airline until boarding,” says DeFazio. And the carrier may have different rules, standards and policies for handling consumer complaints.

The airline association would not comment on this portion of DeFazio’s bill. But David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an Washington, D.C., advocacy group for airline travelers, says it would be positive for the flying public.

“We think passengers should have the right to know what airline they’re flying. We’re very much in favor of that kind of disclosure. It’s about time that it happened.”

The last part of the Right to Know legislation is perhaps the most problematic. It proposes telling passengers the odds of being able to exchange award miles for a ticket on a given flight. Frequent flier guru Randy Petersen thinks the idea has some merit, but he believes travelers will just end up more frustrated when they get the bad news.

“DeFazio’s efforts are certainly admirable, but it still probably doesn’t solve anything,” he says. “If anything, it will open up more questions. Like, ‘why aren’t there more seats available at a particular mileage level?’ Maybe the real problem is that there aren’t enough seats for frequent fliers.”

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True. Mandating the display of award seats is one thing. Try mandating more of those seats and the airlines will scream “re-regulation!”

But overall, DeFazio’s efforts to get a straight answer out of airlines and travel agents should be applauded. Sure, there are other industries with similar credibility problems, but I think DeFazio picked a perfect place to start. Which is why I’m convinced that the Right to Know Act’s time will come, sooner or later.

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