Travel privacy affects every traveler.
When I talk about travel privacy, most travelers look at me blankly. I get the “What-me-worry?” stare. But, travel records reveal a lot about travelers. And privacy rules and regulations are few and far between.
Airlines, hotels, rental cars, tour operators, cruise lines, and other facets of the travel industry all operate via giant information technology (IT) networks. Each General Distribution System (GDS) has its own network and each GDS is plugged into even larger networks. These allow passengers to access information about their travels from every corner of the world. This is an IT world that needs travel privacy protection.
Privacy rules need to be unified under one federal office
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) split the government’s privacy rules and regulations. The FTC sets privacy rules for most of the economy and many travel providers such as hotels, cruise lines, and rental cars. DOT creates and enforces privacy rules for airlines and ticket agents. Giant GDSs span the world and connect all travel agents with airlines and hotels.
Seven years ago, Travelers United called for the first-ever privacy discussions among travel stakeholders. Consumers, the FTC, DOT, airlines, travel agents, and computer operators met for a full day before the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections. The work was ongoing, with meetings to be scheduled with airlines and other privacy groups. However, the current administration stopped all progress made by the Advisory Committee.
The Senate Commerce Committee noted travel privacy concerns
In addition, in 2019 the Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter to airlines noting privacy concerns.
An additional transparency issue concerns how airlines handle personal information that they obtain from consumers through the ticket purchase process or otherwise. Data collected during ticket purchase can include a passenger’s name, credit card numbers, date of birth, addresses, travel destinations, and travel companions, among other information. No comprehensive federal privacy law currently applies to the collection, use, and disclosure of consumer travel information. Consumer advocates have expressed concern that airline privacy policies can contain substantial caveats and that it is difficult for consumers to learn what information airlines and others in the travel sector are collecting, keeping, and sharing about them.
Travel data is important, but nobody seems to care
Travel privacy includes forms of payment, passport information, reservations on all types of transportation, lodging, preferences, back-up information, and more.
Today, the airline industry via the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is proposing new technology standards. These will allow airlines and, eventually, other travel providers, to create “personalized prices” for travelers. (Thankfully, we have a respite because of the coronavirus.)
Airlines and hotels with access to private information can provide individualized advertising
An airline or a hotel can look at travel data and combine it with available third-party information. Travel providers examine data such as the value of your home, your annual income, credit reports, where you went to school, what kind of car you drive, etc, Then they combine it with the data that they hold in their own IT systems. Using this data, travel providers can offer individuals the perfect price.
Voila! An airline could serve passengers very personal prices with exactly the ancillary services that they should want. We passengers wouldn’t even have to think. The airlines would do our thinking for us. Heck, if IT advances and databases become powerful enough, the entire trip planning system can be automated. Our vacations may be planned from start to finish on what personal data shows we might want.
Customers should be in charge. Allow them to customize their own travel
Personalization or customized pricing must put the customer in charge of customizing their own travel palette. We select what we want for ourselves. Of course, that would require the airlines and other travel providers to make available to us a usable menu of services. It would include prices, including ancillary fees. Airlines still refuse to provide these total prices in a form where they can be compared across the industry.
• Privacy matters from a security point of view, both personal and financial.
• Information airlines and other travel providers keep about travelers’ matters as they seek to personalize pricing and market products.
Consumers need a travel privacy system. All travel providers should tell consumers what information the industry is holding about them. If nothing else, consumers would be able to make sure that the information is accurate, even if they have no control over how the information is used.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 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.