Working every day to make travel better for all travelers
Happy New Year. Here are six important advocacy issues that will be the focus of Travelers United action in the coming year, 2019. Each issue will require concerted efforts from many groups and will take more time than one year to settle. However, in Washington, DC, that is the way things work with advocacy issues.
So, stick with us during the upcoming months and 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 an 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 full mandatory price of $229 would be the overnight advertised price. But, such thinking is wrong, according to the Hotel and Lodging Association. For them, advertising 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. Now, 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.
Truth in Advertising — Home sharing (Airbnb, HomeAway, and others)
With hotels having a free rein to provide dishonest advertising, their competitors have begun to do the same. More and more of the home-sharing sites are beginning 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 a property is selected and the final price is calculated. 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 do to obscure the full 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 prior to the purchase of the airfare.
Of course, this means that comparison shopping is impossible. Without the full complement of prices, the full price of travel cannot be calculated. And, even with all of the prices 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 to a TSA line in international terminals. Together with facial recognition, the howls of privacy organizations will be heard. The basic 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 and their partner programs with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), are new programs that blend the federally protected programs together with industry-protected programs.
Airlines such as Delta are not linking 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, to enter premium lounges and board aircraft all using only their face as a security system. Bringing biometrics together with commerce in places like elite lounges and duty-free shopping malls may raise additonal privacy concerns beyond the basic identification function of the CBP programs.
Rental car companies, led by Hertz, have announced plans to allow customers to pick up automobiles using only their faces. This program that will link facial recognition programming to personally identifiable information may face additional privacy concerns.
No increases in airport taxes
Travelers United will continue the battle to keep airport taxes and fees unchanged. With the drive towards an infrastructure program that seems to be ramping up in Congress, travelers need to be even more concerned. Though the local Chambers of Commerce and the airport executives will continually argue that they need additional funding, new improvements are being constructed across the country. Plus, one of the biggest construction piggy banks for airport construction has billions of dollars in surplusses.
Before soaking passengers for more money on top of the current Passenger Facility Charges (PFC), airport construction fees, airport parking charges, increased airport food court pricing, airport retail surcharges, and taxi/ride-share fees, airports should be looking for extra fees from the surrounding communities and the local property owners who use the airports every day of the year. These parking lot operators and office building landlords use the airports to generate income every day and are the real users of airports beyond the passengers who pass through airports, at the most, several times a month or less.
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, squeezed the bathrooms to where passengers can only wash one hand at a time, 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 such an evacuation with new airplanes fitted with denser seating configurations is impossible.
When the courts order these tests, the airlines will be forced to 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 one of the biggest complaints of neighbors surrounding airports. Some anecdotal stories claim that something like 80+ percent of airport noise complaints are filed by only a handful of the public. Today, some areas have small keychain items that will report aircraft noise with simply the click of a button.
Of course, any noise can be considered disruptive for many of those living near the 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, I and my neighbors 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 much of the problems. Another solution might be to close all airports nearby large residential areas and move them at least a half-hour or more outside of 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 and to be free of any kind of 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 ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.