Reauthorizing the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is never easy. Many times in the past, Congress punted and settled for an extension. This year, a new multi-year bill finally worked its way through both the Senate and House of Representatives. The American Society of Travel Advisors has been all over it, engaging with policymakers to lobby for the interests of the travel agency community and its customers. ASTA executive vice president of advocacy Eben Peck breaks down the key points.
For those of us who follow aviation policy closely, three-plus years of uncertainty came to a close on Oct. 5 when President Donald Trump signed into law the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. Starting in 2015, the reauthorization process saw epic fights over air traffic control privatization, airport financing and airline fees, but the final package was a consensus one. It largely avoided controversy while passing the U.S. House of Representatives by voice vote in late September, and the U.S. Senate on a bipartisan 93 to 6 vote soon thereafter. There are, however, plenty of items in the 1,207-page bill that will impact the business travel community. With federal aviation policy effectively set through 2023, now is a good time to take stock.
Travel management companies are “ticket agents” in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and with that designation comes a thick book of regulations connected to the sale of air travel.
Early drafts of the FAA bill included seven new disclosures required of travel agents during virtually all of the 155 million air transactions consummated through the agency channel in a given year. ASTA estimated that would have cost the agency community $29.8 million per year in training, reprogramming, “talk time” and other costs.
The Senate version of the bill would have empowered DOT to prohibit airlines fees that are “unreasonable or disproportional to the costs incurred by the air carrier.” That airlines fiercely opposed this provision was unsurprising given that fee revenue for checked bags alone at the mainline carriers approaches $5 billion per year and has arguably been the key to the industry’s recent return to profitability. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker even went so far as to say that if the provision became law, AA would have eliminated the ability for consumers to make changes to nonrefundable tickets entirely, something that would have brought substantial disruption to the business travel ecosystem. In the end, the airlines prevailed and the language was stripped.
The final package includes provisions reauthorizing and formally setting policy for the Transportation Security Administration for the first time since it was created in 2001. It established a five-year term for the TSA Administrator to help maintain leadership stability.
The bill also calls for a dramatic expansion of the TSA PreCheck program, with a goal of 15 million travelers enrolled by 2021 (up from the current 7 million). It requires TSA to leverage the private sector to make PreCheck enrollment easier for passengers.
Given the volume of travelers that come through the agency channel (and the tendency of those using that channel to travel more than the general public), TMCs are positioned to play a critical role in the expansion of the program. We believe that the increased private sector involvement envisioned by the bill will open new opportunities for TMCs, potentially even including financial incentives for enrolling their clients.
Inflight Voice Calls
Perhaps the easiest “call” to make (forgive the pun) was to ban inflight voice calls, which the final bill did. In 2016 DOT had proposed to allow voice calls inflight so long as consumers were notified at all points of sale (yes, another proposed disclosure for travel agencies). ASTA opposed this strenuously, reflecting unanimous member feedback. Concerns extended far beyond our membership base. DOT said it received “over 1,700 comments from individuals,” with 96 percent favoring a ban on voice calls. “Most commenters used strong language to express the view that voice calls in the presence of others are disturbing in general, and even more so in a confined space,” according to DOT. We’re not sure who the other 4 percent were – airline marketing people? – but are pleased this practice is banned until at least 2023.
Other Consumer Protections
The bill includes a number of other consumer protection measures, modest in scope for the most part but certainly steps in the right direction. These include maintaining DOT’s full-price advertising rule (which the airlines had targeted for elimination); directing the Department to set minimum legroom, width and length requirements for passenger seats on commercial flights; and prohibiting involuntary bumping of passengers who already boarded.
In light of the critical role TMCs and travel agencies play in the aviation system and the broader travel and tourism industry – 287.7 million passenger trips settled by ARC for U.S. travel agencies in 2017 alone – it is essential that we have our voices heard when policy decisions impacting us are being made. Put another way, consider the old Washington saying: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
The final FAA bill is not perfect, but it does keep the agency disclosure burden manageable and provides important new protections for TMC clients. ASTA is proud of the work we and our members put in to shape it. So, who’s ready for 2023?