Travelers United is working every day to make travel better for all travelers by examining these advocacy issues.
Happy New Year. Here are four essential advocacy issues that will focus on Travelers United action in the coming year, 2022. Each case will require concerted efforts from many groups and take more than one year to settle. However, in Washington, DC, that is the way things work with advocacy issues.
So, please stick with us during the upcoming months. Let’s see how the legislative and regulatory world turns and whether the travel industry ultimately wins or consumers prevail with these advocacy issues.
Truth in Advertising — Hotels
The travel industry has a problem with honesty. Hotels want to tell us that the room rate for overnight is, for example, $200. However, when it comes time to pay the bill, the rate jumps to $229 when resort fees are added. One might think that the total mandatory price of $229 would be the overnight advertised price. But, such thinking is wrong, according to the Hotel and Lodging Association. For them, promoting a rate of $200 and then charging $229 is an honest way to do business.
Travelers United has been fighting this system of mandatory hotel fees for years. The National Association of Attorneys General has joined the fight, and the Federal Trade Commission has released a study that shows how consumers suffer when faced with false advertising. Recently, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania negotiated a settlement with the Marriott Corporation to have all mandatory fees included in the overnight room rates. Plus, lawsuits are now pending against MGM Resorts, Marriott Corporation, and Hilton Hotel Corporation.
Truth in Advertising — Home sharing (Airbnb, HomeAway, and others)
With hotels having free rein to provide false advertising, their competitors have begun to do the same. More and more home-sharing sites are starting to add fees to their basic prices to make the initial price seem amazingly inexpensive.
And, now, just like with hotels, one can find resort fees, cleaning fees, and other fees after selecting a property and calculating the final price. It is too bad that dishonest practices are so quickly emulated by the big players in any industry and their up-and-coming competitors.
Truth in Advertising — Airlines
Airlines have done everything they can to obscure the total price of flying. The only part of the price that is public information is the airfare and the taxes and fees. Airlines claim that all of the other fees are simply optional and therefore do not have to be advertised or disclosed before purchasing the airfare.
Of course, this means that comparison shopping is impossible. Without the full complement of prices, travelers cannot calculate the total cost of travel. And, even with all of the expenses and exemptions included, the airlines have created such a complex system that computer shopping programs still do not exist that can provide travelers apples-to-apples price comparisons.
Facial recognition everywhere
Facial recognition is coming to an international border crossing near you and a TSA line in international terminals. Together with facial recognition, the media will hear the howls of privacy advocates. The fundamental concerns are that facial recognition allows for more pernicious privacy penetration. And, hot on the heels of the new Customers and Border Protection (CBP) programs, new programs with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are starting. New programs blend the federally protected programs with industry-protected programs.
Airlines such as Delta link facial recognition profiles to their boarding passes. The new biometric systems will allow a traveler who has moved through the CBP facial recognition system to purchase duty-free items. These passengers can enter premium lounges and board aircraft using only their faces as a security system. Bringing biometrics together with commerce in places like elite lounges and duty-free shopping malls may raise additional privacy concerns beyond the essential identification function of the CBP programs.
Personal Space on Airplanes
Every traveler can feel the loss of personal space on planes. The latest configurations from American Airlines have eliminated another inch from everyone’s legroom. AA squeezed the bathrooms to where passengers could only wash one hand at a time. They removed back seat video screens and narrowed the passageways between the seats. Other airlines are following suit.
Travelers United has continually worked together with other aviation-based advocacy groups to force airlines to retest the emergency evacuation procedures of airplanes. Every plane should be capable of being evacuated in an emergency within 90 seconds, with half of the doors closed or blocked. Travelers United maintains that an evacuation with new airplanes fitted with denser seating configurations is impossible.
When the courts order these tests, the airlines will reconsider these ill-advised seating schemes.
Finally, we turn to the issue of airline noise. This is one of the most disruptive issues for changes to the air traffic control (ATC) system and the future of aviation in America. Everyone knows that aircraft noise is a significant complaint of neighbors surrounding airports. Anecdotal stories claim that only a handful of the public files something like 80-plus percent of airport noise complaints. Today, some areas have small keychain items that will report aircraft noise simply by clicking a button.
Of course, any noise can be considered disruptive for many living near airports. I lived under the departure runways of Logan Airport in Boston and later in Alexandria, Virginia. Frankly, the noise seemed to disappear after several weeks. In other words, my neighbors and I got used to the changes in decibels. Plus, the actual engine noise has been trimmed dramatically from the old days of the Boeing 727s and unrestrained jet engine whines.
An outside-the-box solution from Travelers United would be for airlines to purchase the land at the ends of runways and then rent it to tenants at below-market rates. That would solve many of the problems. Another solution might be closing all airports near large residential areas and moving them at least a half-hour or more outside metropolitan areas.
Unfortunately, these systems would fail. It seems that the American public wants their cake while they eat it, too. They all expect to have nearby and frequent air transportation. Plus, they want to be free of any noise pollution. That is simply an impossible recipe.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.