The noise against fees seems to have reached a crescendo with a concerted campaign in the USA around ancillary services.
However, a closer examination reveals that the basis of the anti fee coalition’s case is not based on fact.
The website MadAsHellAboutHiddenFees.com represents a coalition of American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), Business Travel Coalition (BTC) and the Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA).
Of these, the only professional membership organization would be ASTA representing the interests of the US travel agency community.
The other two organizations are individual pressure groups. The former is run by Kevin Mitchell and the latter is fronted by three writers, Chris Elliott, Edward Hasbrouck and Charlie Leocha.
But deeper scrutiny of the campaign begins to unravel the coalition’s story, as the website makes some strong claims.
The nub of what the coalition is asking for, despite all the rhetoric, is contained on the FAQ page.
Buried in the text is the following statement on which they base much of their case:
9. Aren't you just opposed to ancillary fees as a matter of principle?
No. The airline business model has changed, and optional fees are here to stay. What every consumer deserves is simply a chance to compare prices on an apples-to-apples basis. That's what makes the free market work. We are only opposed to hidden fees that more than 50% of travelers never see until they reach the airport. It is simply not fair, and it needs to change.
Elsewhere the organization acknowledges that the technology exists and that the traditional players are ready to implement it.
8. Does the technology exist today to disseminate ancillary fees through existing sales channels, like the travel agencies?
Yes. The same organization that distributes the airlines' airfares has developed a system to disseminate airline fees. Better yet, the solution can be used for only a nominal fee. The technology is ready to go and has been tested by the airlines themselves. The major computer reservation systems that power the world's travel agents and online travel sites are ready to use this technology to allow travelers to compare the total cost of travel. With it, passengers can pay for airfares and fees at the time of purchase, rather than doing it in multiple places ranging from initial purchase to check-in at the gate. (If a passenger wants to purchase ancillary fees at a later point, like check-in, of course they will have that option as well.) As soon as the government requires airlines to share this information, consumers will be able to search and compare the full and comparable price of their travel, regardless of whether they purchase their tickets through the airlines, reservation systems, online travel agents, corporate travel managers or the travel agency down the block.[See Note 1]
[NB:ATPCO is also a founding member of OpenAxisGroup]
Sadly the coalition has not examined the current processes in place inside the industry and normal accepted practice.
They seem to be rubbishing the capabilities of the travel agency community to interact with the existing sources of information available to every agent, and every consumer who has access directly or indirectly to the internet.
A quick review of the four major GDSs shows that airlines have in general placed most of their travel agent information online for travel agents to access in private websites which are stored away from the general public.
This makes the dissemination of agent pertinent information easily accessible in a more timely manner. Clearly a web page is more useful than a GDS text-only co-host page.
For example, Delta has a portal for agents.
An example of a display from Amadeus shows that American Airlines no longer lists its information on the GDS pages but also rather via the web in multiple languages.
Here is a screen shot. This information has been presented like this since December 2006. So this is not new.
Some airlines still maintain a full GDS presence as well as their own pages – Air France, for example.
However the majority of US carriers use the web to display their information in the form that Delta and American do.
Most travel in the US is researched online; 50% is booked direct and 50% indirect via travel agencies of which the majority is not going through some online tool.
Full terms and conditions for travel are agreed to with a simple click. However the actual terms and conditions of carriage and fees explanation are very arcane.
I doubt that anyone has had the full rules and conditions of a standard fare read to them in recent times.
This information – as with so many other business sectors – is stored on the web. True, not everyone does a good job but the display results are consistent.
So while the coalition is making a big deal about hidden ancillary fees it does seem that the standard processes for the information are currently available and made so using standard channels that are well established and heavily used.
Thus the fees are not hidden. Sadly this seems to disparage the work that many, if not the vast majority, of Travel Agents do in their day-to-day lives.
Does anyone like fees? Probably not, but they are here to stay.
Are they displayed in the easiest format? Also probably not, but anyone who deals with fares on either a regular or occasional basis cannot help but recognize that airline fare rules are at best described as complex.
It should be carefully considered that additional regulation in this area will actually be detrimental to the process of selling travel and create additional work for no additional compensation for these agents.
The old adage of “be careful what you wish for” might actually be very appropriate here.
Note 1: While the technology exists and many of the processes are in place to deploy the solutions, sadly the traditional big four GDSs have not deployed them in any meaningful way.
So this statement is not quite correct. Indeed the airlines are very frustrated in that they cannot disseminate the information to their agents and formed their own organization OpenAxis Group to do just that.
NB: Disclosure - O'Neil-Dunne is acting CTO for Lute Technologies, an organisation which has joined the OpenAxis Group.
UPDATE: Comments on the post are suspended. This post is not the place for parties to air grievances that are not related to the subject matter above. Ed.