Air Carrier-Backed Amendment to FAA Reauthorization Will Result in Higher Airfares and Airline Profits

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Congress seeks new requirements on independent travel agents, ignoring fact that complaints against airlines outnumber travel agents by more than 42 to 1; Amendment claiming to help consumers will instead force public’s favorite comparison websites out of air travel and reduce competition

At a time when airline complaints outnumber ticket agent complaints by a stunning 42-to-1 ratio, this amendment is an airline-concocted solution in desperate search of a non-existent consumer problem.

The Air Travel Fairness Coalition, an alliance representing 70,000 individual travelers and consumer and business groups, today urged the U.S. Senate to reject an airline-backed amendment detrimental to the flying public in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, as yet another attempt by the U.S. airline industry to drive higher airfares and profits at the expense of Americans that elect Senators to represent them.

Under the subterfuge of “Consumer Protection Requirements Relating to Large Ticket Agents,” the bill would require ticket agents that generate $100 million or more in annual revenue to provide consumers with information and services that are impossible for independent ticket agents to provide – either because of airline restrictions, or because the information they would be required to give is data only the airlines possess, and have been unwilling – or even unable - to provide.

In fact, airlines are actively reducing access to information for independent providers of travel information that are popular with consumers, and have even refused to cooperate with independent websites that have invested in new functionality at the airlines’ request.

“An honest name for this bill would be ‘Airline Profit Protection Requirements Related to Large Ticket Agents,’ as airline profits are all that’s protected by it,” said Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of the Air Travel Fairness Coalition. “At a time when airline complaints outnumber ticket agent complaints by a stunning 42-to-1 ratio, this amendment is an airline-concocted solution in desperate search of a non-existent consumer problem.”    

DOT data shows consumers most concerned about airline service

According to the most recent U.S. Department of Transportation “Air Travel Consumer Report” during the month of Feb. 2018, there were 1,010 consumer complaints filed against U.S. and foreign airlines, and just 24 complaints filed against the independent travel agents targeted in this bill.

Senate amendment would force independent websites out of air travel

The bill places independent travel agents in a virtually impossible vice by requiring them to provide services and information that they cannot perform without the full cooperation of airlines, an absolute necessity that the airlines have refused to provide, and the bill doesn’t require them to do so. Some of the most popular travel websites and mobile apps relied on by millions of travelers every day would either fail to comply with the law or have to stop providing helpful side-by-side comparisons of schedules and fares that save consumers billions in airfare annually.

As an example of the bill being impossible for websites to comply with, popular “metasearch” sites, which not only compare flight options but also compare various travel websites, would be required to issue refunds and contact travelers under certain circumstances, something that is virtually impossible because metasearch sites don’t issue airline tickets or collect customer information. Once a consumer using a metasearch site has selected the flight and fare option that best meets their travel needs and is ready to purchase, they are taken directly to the airline website to buy a ticket if they choose to move forward. If they do, the customer leaves the metasearch site entirely. The metasearch site would not know where or how a consumer bought a plane ticket, yet would still be required to issue a refund for a purchase they know nothing about.

“This linguistic hoax is the latest attempt by the U.S. airline industry to end easy, convenient, comparison shopping that helps millions of travelers save money every day,” said Ebenhoch. “Airline websites are loyal only to individual carriers, but independent websites are loyal to consumers by providing easy, fast, side-by-side comparisons of all airline, schedule and fare options, and letting the consumer decide. Neutral travel information providers empower and help consumers find the best flights fares, and make air travel more competitive, transparent and affordable in the process.”

Legislation would help airlines fortify their fortress hubs and reduce competition

A similar provision was included in the House of Representatives’ bill at the request of U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski. Rep. Lipinski represents parts of Chicago, near the global headquarters of United Airlines, the third largest airline in the world by traffic, and home to massive global hub operations for American (the world’s largest airline) and United Airlines, at O’Hare International Airport. Chicago is also home to Southwest’s largest operation in the world at Midway International Airport. Southwest is the largest U.S. airline.

The Senate provision was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Sen. Klobuchar represents Minnesota, home to the Delta Air Lines’ third largest hub at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), where Delta enjoys a 70.7 percent monopoly share of the market. Delta is the world’s second largest airline.

“According to one study, if this big airline-backed bill passes, travel may become unaffordable for 41 million Americans every year while airlines generate even higher profits,” Ebenhoch added.

Travelers face fewer choices in a concentrated airline industry that is less competitive than at any time since deregulation. The industry has consolidated into a four-carrier oligopoly – consisting of American, Delta, Southwest and United – which together control more than four out of every five airline seats available in the U.S. At MSP, the four largest carriers control more than 87 percent of the market.

While some claim that airfares have come down, it ignores the fact that consumers are now paying for an array of air travel basics that were previously included in the price of a ticket, such as:

  •     Checking a bag
  •     Carrying on more than a small personal item
  •     Placing a carry-on in an overhead bin
  •     Sitting in something other than a center seat at the back of the plane
  •     Buying a ticket from a live human being
  •     Pre-assigning a seat
  •     Redeeming frequent flyer miles
  •     Meals
  •     Vague “carrier-imposed fees”

and many other services.

About the Air Travel Fairness Coalition

Air Travel Fairness, made up of more than 70,000 travelers, as well as consumer and business organizations, believes genuine airfare transparency and easy comparison shopping is good for American families, good for business, good for the economy and good for competition. Air Travel Fairness has been endorsed by the American Society of Travel Agents, the Business Travel Coalition, Travelers United (part of the Consumer Federation of America) and the Travel Technology Association. For more information, visit http://www.airtravelfairness.org.

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Kurt Ebenhoch
@AirFairness
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