When I talk about privacy and travel, most travelers look at me blankly. I get the “What-me-worry?” stare. But, travel records tell 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 operator has their own network and each operator is plugged into even larger networks that allow passengers to access information about their travels from every corner of the world.
The government’s creation of rules and regulations about privacy are split between the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Transportation (DOT). The FTC sets privacy rules for most of the economy and many travel providers such as hotels, cruise lines and rental cars. DOT is responsible for setting privacy rules for airlines and ticket agents that include the giant central reservation systems that span the world and connect all travel reservations.
Last year, Travelers United was the lead consumer group that resulted in the first-ever privacy discussions among consumers, the FTC, DOT, airlines, travel agents and computer operators before the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections. The work is ongoing, with meetings to be scheduled with airlines and other privacy groups.
In addition, the Senate Commerce Committee has recently 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.
It doesn’t take much consideration to realize that the security of travel data is important, very important. It contains forms of payment, passport information, reservations on all types of transportation, lodging, preferences, back-up information and more.
And now, the airline industry via the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is proposing new technology standards that would allow airlines and, eventually, other travel providers to create “personalized prices” for travelers.
In other words, the airline or hotel would be able to look at travel data and combine it with third-party information that they can purchase. After examining data such as the value of your home, your annual income, where you went to school, what kind of car you drive, etc., then mixing it up with the data that they have in their own IT systems, travel providers hope to be able to 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 and our vacations may be planned from start to finish on what personal data shows we might want.
Of course, there is another way to look at personalization or customized pricing — that would be to put the customer in charge of customizing their own palette of flights and services that we select for ourselves. Of course, that would require the airlines and other travel providers to make available to us a useable menu of services and prices that airlines still refuse to provide in a form where total prices 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, in the future, to personalize pricing and, today, to market their products.
Consumers should have a system in place that would require all travel providers to 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.