Who Speaks For You? (And What Are They Saying?)

By | April 28, 2017

Many groups advocate for a wide range of travel issues. Some relate to corporate travel, but who speaks specifically for the corporate travel industry?

Sixty attendees to the Association of Corporate Travel Executives’ New York event this week answered that question as part of an informal poll. They mentioned ACTE, Airlines for America, the American Society of Travel Agents, the Business Travel Coalition, the U.S. Travel Association and a few of their own organizations. Airline reps pointed to their companies’ active government affairs departments. Some said no group really represents the industry voice. By a wide margin, the most often-mentioned organization was the Global Business Travel Association.

That’s no surprise, even among attendees to an ACTE conference.

GBTA is active in Washington, at the local level and in Brussels. It runs a yearly legislative affairs event in Washington, during which members can meet U.S. senators and representatives. The 2017 edition happened this week. GBTA’s government relations committee is co-chaired by travel buyers. The group claims its political action committee is “the only federally recognized PAC representing the business travel industry.”

During a phone interview last week, new GBTA vice president of government affairs Andrew Meehan said there could be room to work with other groups on certain issues. That would please a few poll respondents who gave GBTA better grades for its efforts than for results. Some pined for stronger advocacy through a more unified voice.

“In any position that I have worked in during a decade of government relations, I have found there never is a shortage of coalitions to build,” Meehan said. GBTA recently worked with flight attendant groups on a successful fight to ban inflight cell phone voice calls.

He pointed to the pursuit of expanding (or at least maintaining) the Visa Waiver Program. That position has broad support. Proponents include Airlines for America, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, ASTA, GBTA, USTA and various chambers of commerce.

Andrew Meehan

GBTA vice president of government affairs Andrew Meehan

Despite its advocates, the VWP “comes under constant scrutiny,” Meehan said.

When asked which travel-related issue should be a greater priority in Washington, some poll respondents mentioned visas and border crossings. Anything that impedes travel is of course a concern for industry suppliers and companies that send people out on the road. Travel visa issues (potentially affecting both inbound U.S. travelers and Americans traveling to Europe), the “laptop” ban and the “Muslim travel ban” unnerve travel people. A tarnished image of America only hurts the country’s tourism sector.

Everyone wants a safe and secure aviation system but new rules sprung on the traveling public raise many questions. Both ACTE and GBTA issued statements asking a number of them. For some, though, such statements didn’t go far enough.

To push the message, ACTE executive director Greeley Koch last week spoke at a hearing convened by New York City Council’s Committee on Economic Development. He was there to discuss the travel and tourism ramifications of the travel bans. Koch pointed to a recent ACTE survey showing that “uncertainty regarding travel to the U.S. was suddenly affecting travel agendas.” He said businesses and their travelers “abhor uncertainty.” It leads to cancelled trips. That uncertainty, he said, “needs to end here.”

Thirty-eight of the 60 respondents to The Company Dime poll said they were worried about the Trump Administration’s impact on business travel.

Stateside

The most-cited issues by polled ACTE attendees were FAA reauthorization and closely related air traffic control modernization. FAA has operated with 23 short-term extensions, the current one set to expire on Sept. 30, 2017. GBTA said Congress ideally would pass a long-term reauthorization before that happens.

It’s hard to find opposition to a “NextGen” air traffic control system. It’s of primary concern to Airlines for America, GBTA, USTA and others. President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint calls for the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control function to “shift” to “an independent, non-governmental organization, making the system more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety.”

Several poll respondents said travel taxation needs more attention. Airlines for America wants the tax burden on air travelers reduced, claiming that would “help keep airfares affordable.” Specifically, the association wants Congress to repeal the commercial jet fuel tax (currently 4.4 cents per gallon), reject any increase to Passenger Facility Charges and stop any proposals regarding “a value-added tax approach to airlines’ optional services.”

GBTA argues that more of the security fees paid should go to actually improving aviation security. While Trump’s budget blueprint calls for an increase in the percentage of collected funds directed toward aviation security, “having any amount of this fee go towards deficit reduction or other needs unrelated to the travel industry is too much,” according to a GBTA statement.

“We should all pay our part to cut the federal deficit,” Meehan added, “but security fees are supposed to help TSA recover costs to pay for aviation security.”

He talked up the idea of expanding biometric-based security screening at airports. By leveraging technology, Meehan said, it’s possible to “create a seamless, frictionless screening environment that is more secure than what you have now.” Trusted traveler programs like the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck and Custom and Border Protection’s Global Entry are key components.

Discriminatory taxation has been one of GBTA’s biggest pet peeves. Voiced for years, including during congressional hearings, the association’s position is that state and local taxes — notably levied on car rentals — paid by business travelers should not be used to fund projects unrelated to business travel. ASTA has a similar position.

Another travel tax issue relates to airline customers not recovering paid taxes and PFCs when unused tickets are refunded. A key question is whether these are levied on the sale of the transportation or the provision of it. It’s an age-old frustration that came up recently in a Travel Weekly column by industry lawyer Mark Pestronk. It seems corporate travel buyers have a beef but no one is speaking out.

Similarly, why should hotel customers be charged occupancy taxes and such when they no-show or don’t cancel in time? No group is openly complaining about that, either.

Laundry List

Perhaps certain issues don’t rise to the top because the catalog of gripes is long.

Passenger rights: Improving the travel experience and protecting passenger rights always has been an important issue. After the recent United Airlines incident, a few poll respondents said this is the travel topic that needs the most attention in Washington.

Business Travel Coalition said it supports Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

GBTA polled members on the topic and “the three themes we got were dignity, transparency and fairness,” Meehan said. He suggested long-winded airline contracts of carriage full of legalese should be more accessible and understandable.

The American Society of Travel Agents said that while it has supported previous consumer protection initiatives by the U.S. Congress and Department of Transportation, “this disturbing incident should tell us loud and clear that more needs to be done.” ASTA called for “increased protections for overbooked and bumped passengers,” among other things.

Alleged protectionism: The Partnership for Open & Fair Skies opposes additional U.S. services by Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. The group’s members include American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and various airline employee unions. Their argument is that the United Arab Emirates and Qatar infuse billions in subsidies into their state-owned airlines, creating unfair competition. Because of that, the group wants the U.S. government to “enforce its Open Skies agreements” with those countries.

For obvious reasons, Airlines for America also implores the U.S. government “to play its role in ensuring U.S. commercial aviation is operating on a level playing field with foreign competitors.”

BTC is on the other side of this issue, asserting that Open Skies deals do and should continue to foster competition. The Big Three U.S. carriers, BTC argues, are an oligopoly out to protect their dominant position in the transatlantic market.

Similarly, BTC fought against the Big Three U.S. carriers in advocating for approval of Norwegian Air International’s request to add U.S. services. Norwegian won rights to continue expanding here.

Home-sharing: Airbnb is a growing player in corporate lodging. GBTA and others have researched the home-sharing concept but no corporate travel association has come out in opposition. The American Hotel & Lodging Association has. “Rein in illegal hotels” is one of its three top agenda items, along with supporting hotel workers and promoting travel and tourism.

“AHLA believes that there should be a level and legal playing field within the lodging sector, and that regulations and taxes with respect to short-term rentals should be strictly enforced,” according to the association. “We support the rights of property owners to occasionally rent out a room or their home, but commercial operators within the short-term rental industry should not be allowed to operate outside of the law.”

Additional info: GBTA’s Meehan previously worked as the policy director for Keeping Identities Safe and as acting CEO for the Identification Technology Association, a nonprofit representing the biometrics industry. He has been involved with various groups, including some local BTA chapters, on the implementation of the Real ID Act.

Holly Woodruff Lyons is deputy general counsel for the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and also staff director for the aviation subcommittee. According to GBTA, she told attendees at the Legislative Summit that the committee’s work toward FAA reauthorization “is up against many barriers such as budget constraints, reductions in force, lack of order in Congress and the fact that there has been no stand-alone travel appropriations bill since 2006.” Regarding the NextGen air traffic control system, she added that there have been “pockets of success” but “no real progress.” Lyons also said that committee chair Bill Shuster (R-PA) proposed the creation of a independent, not-for-profit organization responsible for air traffic control. GBTA said it will share its position on this topic “in the near future.”

Also speaking during the GBTA event, CBP deputy executive assistant commissioner John Wagner said new biometric technologies will be deployed for arriving and departing passengers. He said a test in Atlanta using facial recognition is working well without adding time to the process.

Like GBTA, ASTA routinely meets with Congressional leaders to discuss items of importance. Those include advocating for full disclosure of airline fees at travel agency points of sale, opposing new taxes on travel agency services, fighting the U.S. Department of Labor’s plan to end an exemption for travel agencies regarding federal overtime rules and adopting travel insurance standards. ASTA’s 2017 Legislative Day on Capitol Hill is scheduled for June 6-7.

Trump’s budget blueprint calls for reducing Amtrak subsidies. All federal support for long-distance rail service would be cut, allowing the rail operator to “focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast Corridor train services.” The blueprint also proposes eliminating funding for the Essential Air Service program.

Disclosure: The Company Dime has a partnership with ASTA.

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