Agency, Distributor And Other Groups Continue Fight For 'Transactability' Mandate In DOT Fee Rules

In its proposed rules governing the disclosure of ancillary fees in various sales channels, the U.S. Department of Transportation went short of what some groups representing distributors, agencies and consumers had advocated: that airlines be required to enable the sale of ancillaries in multiple channels, not just disclose their cost.

Yet, as DOT solicits comments from the public to shape the final rules, it asks whether it should include such a requirement. From the likes of the American Society of Travel Agents, the Business Travel Coalition, Open Allies for Airfare Transparency and Travelers United (formerly known as the Consumer Travel Alliance), the response is an emphatic "yes."

From the airlines, expect an equally emphatic "no."

Open Allies, which counts distributors and travel agencies as members, in a recent filing with DOT encouraged the implementation of a final rule that "allows consumers an opportunity to transact fees made available on any distribution channel," suggesting that fee transparency "should include transactability." Open Allies indicated it would elaborate on this stance in further comments with DOT.

Travelers United, meanwhile, in a recent filing urged DOT "to mandate that airlines be required to allow purchase of at least these basic ancillary products of first checked bag, second checked bag, carry­on baggage and advanced seat reservations."

ASTA, meanwhile, this week reiterated its long-held stance. "ASTA will definitely be making a vigorous and compelling argument for a transactability requirement in our comments to the DOT," according to a spokesperson.

Upon release of DOT's proposed rules, BTC commented, "we urge the agency to ensure that consumers can purchase these services from travel agents at the same time as an airline ticket."

As currently written, DOT's draft rules "would require only disclosure of basic ancillary service fees" and "transactability would not be required," according to the regulatory impact assessment accompanying DOT's May 21 notice of proposed rulemaking.

Exclusion of the transaction mandate in the proposed rules no doubt came as a relief to airlines, which long had fought it, viewing such a requirement as interfering with their commercial relationships with the third parties that sell their content.

Yet, the regulatory impact assessment noted, "The Department may revisit the transactability of ancillary service fees in the future if appropriate."

To that end, DOT is soliciting feedback as to whether such requirements should be included in the final rules. DOT seems especially interested in the transactability of advance seat assignments, which, it noted in the proposed rules, "are often dynamic and change based on route, aircraft size, availability and time of purchase."

"Proponents of transactability argue that without the ability to purchase the seats at the time of ticket purchase," DOT continued, "consumers will be further harmed because desired seats may not be available when the passenger decides to purchase them or is allowed by the carrier to purchase them or they may cost more."

DOT also requested "information on the costs and benefits of requiring transactability and how requiring transactability would affect existing contracts between the GDSs and the airlines. We also invite interested persons to provide their views on whether disclosure plus transactability should be required not only for advance seat assignments but also for fees associated with first and second checked bags and carry-on bags."

As agencies, airlines, distributors and others prepare their official comments for the docket, DOT is sure to get an earful.