A DOT advisory committee entertained presentations — pro and con — over the last few months on the hot-button issue of whether airlines should be forced to sell ancillary services, such as premium seats and airport lounge access, through travel agencies — and the panel ducked the question.

Instead, the DOT-appointed Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection issued a vague recommendation encouraging “all participants in the industry — airlines, distribution systems, and agents — to continue innovating with respect to transparency and distribution of optional products and services.”

Priceline, with its seat selection shown above, is the only online travel agency selling American Airlines Preferred Seats. But, Priceline sells them through a direct-connect with AA, and not through a GDS.

Citing the complexity of airline-product choice these days, the committee opined: “Consequently, innovation that makes comparison shopping easier than it is today would benefit the public.”

But, so would Vitamin C and sunshine.

Not really a consumer panel

The panel’s take-no-chances recommendation likely grew out of its makeup. After all, it wasn’t really a consumer committee despite the word “consumer” in its name.

Appointed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the committee included a state attorney general (Lisa Madigan of Ilinois, who chaired the panel); an airport official (Deborah Ale Flint of Oakland International Airport); an airline representative (David Berg of the trade association, Airlines for America); and a consumer member (Charles Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance).

The committee was charged with evaluating testimony from industry experts and making recommendations to LaHood to inform his view on what new consumer protections for airline passengers are called for. The panel was not a consumer board, per se.

In three meetings since June, the committee heard such things as a Delta Air Lines official disclosing that the airline is negotiating with global distribution systems to transmit fee information, but a new DOT regulation on the matter would disrupt the talks.

And, an Alaska Airlines official argued similarly that a DOT mandate for airline distribution through GDSs would tip the relationship to the GDSs’ advantage.

Meanwhile, representatives from Open Allies, the Business Travel Coalition, the Interactive Travel Services Association, and GDSs weighed in, arguing that the fee transparency question calls out for a new DOT rule requiring airlines to sell their optional services through travel agencies.

New rules in 2013

The advisory committee’s recommendation on transparency comes as the DOT takes up the issue in a new rulemaking process slated to take place in 2013.

On a related transparency issue, the panel urged the DOT to require online travel agencies and all other ticket agents to disclose the fact that they don’t “offer for sale all airlines’ tickets, if that is the case, and that additional airlines may serve the route being searched.”

“In some instances, it may appear that a route is not served at all because the airline or airlines serving that route have chosen not to participate in a particular distribution system; this can be confusing for consumers,” the committee stated.

And, on other issues, the advisory committee recommended that:

  • The DOT should encourage airlines and airports to develop a plan with the TSA to assist disabled travelers “who are unable to sit during lengthy layovers without their specially made wheelchairs;” and
  • the DOT should improve the airline passenger consumer complaint process by taking such steps as providing contact information for the DOT analyst processing the complaint.

Kevin Mitchell, who heads the Business Travel Coalition, which favors airline ancillary fee disclosure through GDSs as a means to benefit corporate travel, says the committee did look “closely” at the airline fee issue. But, Mitchell wasn’t surprised it didn’t take a strong stance.

Says Mitchell: “With four members, including Airlines for America and an airport, it was bound to punt. This is not DOT’s doing either. The committee was put in place by Congress.”

Tags: dot, fees, gds