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Airline fight to end transparency enters critical point

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

The big airlines don’t want airfare transparency. Sure, they say they do, but they really don’t. They don’t want you to be able to use comparison websites. They want to con you by hyping “fares” that are less than you really have to pay. As lobbied on a complacent Congress, and abetted by a submissive Department of Transportation, the airlines have managed to get two proposals into the current FAA Reauthorization bills that, taken together, would severely hinder your ability to find your best airfare options easily. The House has already passed its version of the bill with these anti-consumer provisions. Consumer advocates are banking on the prospect that their strong opposition will prevent the Senate from adopting the same pernicious provisions. Although this is now mainly an “inside the beltway” struggle, as consumers you can certainly let your senators know how you feel — even if you agree with the airlines. The attack on transparency comes in two parts.

Kill the Comparison Websites. Both versions of the bill contain language that requires the DOT to set standards requiring any “large ticket agent” to adopt “minimum customer service standards.” This directive would require large online travel agencies (OTA) such as Expedia to provide a wide range of data on fares and important fees, advise travelers of changes and provide refunds when refunds are due. And, in some readings, requirements would extend to metasearch systems that do not conduct any actual transactions but instead merely refer viewers to transaction sources. Although this sounds innocuous, it would actually make it almost impossible for OTAs to offer airfares: They would be required to provide fee and other data that airlines do not provide to them and can withhold from them at airline discretion. It could even force metasearch websites such as Google Flights and TripAdvisor to provide financial and customer support for transactions to which they are not party. Although both bill versions require large agents to present relevant data, neither requires airlines to provide those necessary data.

As currently drafted, these proposals would make it virtually impossible for OTAs and even referral metasearch systems to compare and present airfare information. The language of the bills parrots pious airline rhetoric about “consumer protection,” but the true intent is clearly obvious: Make individual airline websites the only places consumers can find accurate fare information.

Hide the True Cost. Both versions of the FAA bill include language that would reverse the landmark DOT rule requiring airlines to display all-up total cost, including fares plus mandatory taxes and fees, in their advertising and from the very first screen. The airlines lobbied a similar stand-alone bill a few years ago, which died, but they’re back at it again. It’s hard to understand why so many House members of both parties voted favorably on this blatantly anti-consumer provision. The kindest explanation is that they weren’t aware of the full implication; other explanations involve lobbying and campaign contributions. And, sadly, in an official comment to Congress, the DOT did not have the courage to defend what it has previously bragged about as one of its signature pro-consumer accomplishments.

What Happens Next. Just about any consumer advocate organization you can think of and several trade organizations are lobbying intensely with any senators that might be amenable to removing the anti-consumer provisions. Given the politics of the situation, many hope that the best current outcome might be a weak solution: a short-term FAA extension coupled with some later reconsideration of the details — maybe in a new Congress.

What Can Consumers Do. At this point, anyone worried about the bill’s attacks on airfare transparency should notify their senator of their opinion. Do the same even if you support the attack. Either way, about the only resource consumers have at this point is to make their voices heard.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s rail travel website at Rail-Guru.com.)

(c) 2018 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.– June 12, 2018

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