Business Travel Coalition takes airline fee fight to the White House

Petition drive seeks to force airlines to provide fee information to all channels

Some of the top travel management executives in the U.S. rejected the idea that the Transportation Department should regulate the distribution of airlines’ ancillary products and services.

The DOT has been wrestling for many months with the issue of whether it should require airlines to make their ancillary products available through all sales channels, including GDSs. 

But the department has been loath to wade into commercial agreements between airlines and GDS companies, and it has repeatedly delayed a decision.

During a panel discussion of TMC revenue opportunities at The Beat Live, a business travel conference in Miami, moderator David Jonas, executive editor at the BTN Group, asked the audience of about 100 travel managers and TMC executives for a show of hands on whether the Transportation Department’s third edition of consumer protections should move ahead with such a requirement. No hands were raised.

The audience members looked around in confusion, and one asked, “So where is all the controversy coming from?”

Despite the nebulous legality of such a regulation, the DOT has faced an intense lobbying effort on the part of the Business Travel Coalition, which describes itself as a “for-profit advocacy group;” Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a group formed in opposition to the direct-connect model; the Consumer Travel Alliance, and other entities that are pushing for the regulation.

Panelist Mike Cameron, chief executive officer of Christopherson Business Travel in Salt Lake City, said he believes the DOT should stick to aviation issues such as aircraft safety, pilot safety and air traffic control, and “let the commercial marketplace decide” on the ancillary issue.

Panelist Liz Mandarino, president of World Travel in Douglassville, Pa., said she believes the DOT isn’t enthusiastic about the mandate.

“The DOT is hopeful that the dialogue will continue and they won’t have to make a decision,” she said.

Mandarino, who has attended several meetings with the department over the ancillary issue, said, “Not a lot gets done. There’s a lot of talk and opinions about what the customer wants and needs.”

The panel also reacted to a statement from an earlier session in which John Smith, president of Tower Travel Management, said that airlines are being dragged “kicking and screaming” into distribution of ancillary products through the GDSs.

Mandarino disagreed with that assessment. “They absolutely do want to sell through the TMC channel,” she said. “And we can absolutely help them.” 

Dave Hilfman, United Airlines’ senior vice president of sales and the master of ceremonies at The Beat Live, said the perception that airlines don’t want to distribute their ancillary products through GDSs and travel management companies is incorrect.

That misconception may arise from the fact that an airline is always developing new capabilities for its own website first, Hilfman said. “It’s the easiest thing to do,” he said.

Read about Sabre’s new defense in US Airways’ antitrust lawsuit in the Jan. 7 issue of TTU.

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