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Travel industry talking heads: Who do they really represent?

@denschaal

Mar 04, 2013 5:17 am

Skift Take

A for-profit organization such as the Business Travel Coalition, which advocates for airline-fee transparency, should be more transparent about its financial backers.

— Dennis Schaal

Free Report: The State of Student Travel

Charlie Leocha, Consumer Travel Alliance; Kate Hannie of FlyersRights.org; Kevin Mitchell from Business Travel Coalition, the talking heads of travel industry.


Kevin Mitchell, the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, testified before a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee last week on why an American Airlines-US Airways merger would harm business and leisure travelers.

Mitchell told Skift his appearance before Congress was one of more than “20-some testimonies” he’s carried out over the past 15 years.

Charlie Leocha, the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, knows his way around committee rooms, as well. In November, for example, Leocha provided a consumer perspective to the Committee on Transportation and Infastructure’s aviation subcommittee, testifying about travelers’ frustrations with the TSA and its procedures.

Meanwhile, Kate Hanni, who recently left FlyersRights.org, testified before the same aviation subcommittee in 2009 on passengers’ rights, and claims some credit in the eventual implementation of tarmac delay rules.

Who are these people who get so much Congressional attention and media coverage, and who do their organizations really represent?

Business Travel Coalition

Founded in 1996 by Kevin Mitchell, BTC is a for-profit advocacy organization. In recent years, its positions have often been aligned with the global distribution systems, ASTA, and some corporate travel departments and travel management companies.

Mitchell, who studied business strategy at Wharton, has been particularly vocal through testimony and whitepapers advocating that the DOT force airlines to distribute their ancillary services through the global distribution systems, and on to travel agencies and corporations in the interests of transparency and efficiencies.

However, for an organization pushing so hard for its vision of transparency on airline distribution matters, the BTC website doesn’t not list the name of any members or even provide information on how to join.

Mitchell says BTC has “some 300 paying members passionate about travel industry public policy who over time represent virtually the whole range of travel industry participants.”

Since 2001, Mitchell says, BTC’s policy has been not to identify members because in the past they have been strong-armed. “The threats keep coming in, up to today, but they are now only coming to BTC,” Mitchell says.

He cites an experience in 2000, when BTC opposed the idea of United Airlines acquiring US Airways.

“United sent a high-profile lobbyist to visit with the senior managements of BTC member companies asking them to call off BTC from its opposition to the proposed merger,” Mitchell says. “None asked BTC to do so, but it caused headaches for my contacts and I lost a few equally high-profile members.”

Industry sources have long questioned the depth of BTC’s membership base. One airline that worked with BTC in the past indicated that several years ago it viewed BTC’s list of members and supporters “and when we went to those companies to ask about it, they said they did not support it, and then those same companies demanded that the BTC remove their names from the endorsement page.”

Asked why there was no information on the BTC website about how to join, Mitchell said the membership link was inadvertently dropped when the homepage was redesigned in December, and he would restore it.

Membership fees, according to the link, range from silver membership at $49 per year to double titanium membership at $5,000 annually.

And, despite the policy against disclosing the names of members, the link details “members comments,” although the endorsements undoubtedly come from subscribers to BTC’s Travelogue newsletter, and perhaps from members, too.

Mitchell adds:

My business model heavily relies on collaboration with organizations from around the world and I have worked this way since 1994 to leverage limited resources and expand influence.

 

Examples of BTC collaboration include with ASTA on the United Airlines credit card cost-transfer, the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association regarding the Airline Passenger Duty, the American Antitrust Institute on the proposed American-US Airways tie-up, and the German Business Travel Association on airline corporate contracting issues, to name a few.

 

For the record, Sabre indicated last week that it is a BTC member. Travelport indicated that it is not currently a member, although Travelport spokesperson Jill Brenner says Travelport “has in the past supported BTC as have airlines, travel agencies and many others in the travel industry.”

Paul Ruden, ASTA’s senior vice president of legal and industry affairs, says the travel agency trade group is not a member of BTC and doesn’t support it financially.

“I think we did pay some of Kevin’s expenses to travel to an ASTA event (maybe more than one, the ASTA Tradeshow and Premium Summit meetings) where he appeared on the program,” Ruden says. “These were paid against documented costs and similar to what we have done with others in similar circumstances.”

Mitchell says BTC routinely consults a kitchen cabinet of “about 175 travel management company CEOs and corporate travel managers, split about evenly.”

BTC and/or Mitchell have done consulting work in the past, and the BTC website states: “During Q4 2011 we will be moving these offerings under a new organization called the Kevin Mitchell Group (KMG) to enable a more aggressively promotion of these services without causing confusion in the marketplace regarding BTC’s mission.”

There is indeed a Kevin Mitchell Group website, although it is mostly blank and a work in progress.

Mitchell says when he works on campaigns and on testimony with other organizations, such as ASTA and the American Antitrust Institute, “in no cases do any of these collaborative parties compensate one another.”

“And, I assume like other groups do, BTC independently chooses what issues to get involved with,” Mitchell says. “More often than not, BTC takes on the controversial problems that other more deliberative industry bodies with boards and specialized committees cannot.”

The latter is indeed true: BTC wades in on controversial issues while the 5,000-member Global Business Travel Association tends to remain more on the sidelines.

 Consumer Travel Alliance

The Consumer Travel Alliance states it is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization” focused on decisions and policies that impact air travelers.

CTA has recently cautioned authorities about the American Airlines-US Airways merger, citing the issues for US Airways Dividend Miles members, and competition problems. One Open Letter to newspaper editors states:

“As for competition, the Consumer Travel Alliance has learned that when all the major airlines agree that a merger is good for ‘the industry,’ consumers should hold onto their wallets.”

Charlie Leocha is CTA’s point man and director, speaking to the press and participating on government panels on behalf of the organization. For example, Leocha was appointed to the coveted slot last year as the consumer representative on the DOT’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection.

Edward Hasbrouck, consumer advocate author, has worked with the CTA on privacy and passport issues, and journalist Christopher Elliott is an unpaid ombudsman.

CTA currently has 452 paying members who are basically subscribers to its newsletters, Leocha says, adding “we aspire to be a bigger membership organization.”

“They have joined by making a donation and subscribing to one of our newsletters,” Leocha says, referring to the 452 members. “I consider them paid members. We also have about 23,000 newsletter subscribers and 5,000-plus feedburner subscribers to Consumer Traveler, our for-profit newsletter that supports our efforts.”

CTA also works with several other travel websites and blogs, which include CTA surveys in their publications, Leocha says.

FlyersRights.org 

The FlyersRights.org website claims on its homepage to be “the largest non-profit consumer organization representing airline passengers.”

Kate Hanni, who left the group about a month ago, founded FlyersRights in 2006 after she and her family were marooned on a tarmac for nine hours. Hanni, a former real estate broker, has participated on governmental panels, and states she has conducted more than 800 media interviews as she advocated for a Passengers Bill of Rights and legislation to bar excessive tarmac delays.

Paul Hudson, who is president of FlyersRights.org, says the organization is tax-exempt, although contributions are not tax-deductible because the group engages in lobbying.

Other board members of FlyersRights.org and the Flyers’ Rights Education Fund include  John Richard, Ed Mierzwinski, Kendall Creighton, Derrick Aaron, and Joel Smiler.

Hudson says FlyersRights has more than 25,000 donors, members and supporters who make donations ranging from $10 up to “a couple of hundred dollars,” and receive the weekly newsletter.

The group believes there needs to be comprehensive passengers’ rights legislation at the federal level, and has recently written articles critical of the American Airlines-US Airways merger and the likely ill effects of sequestration on air travel.

FlyersRights.org also runs a hotline for passengers in need, and an anonymous tipline.

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