Senate Committee Chair Opens Inquiry Into Airline Ancillary Fee, Passenger Data Practices

Kicking off an "inquiry" into airline practices on data privacy and fee transparency, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.) this week sent letters to the 10 largest U.S. airlines by revenue. He's probing "how they disclose certain additional fees to consumers when they are making ticket purchases" and asking carriers to detail "internal policies aimed at protecting consumer information gathered during the ticket purchase process."

As for the ancillary fee stuff, we've been down this road. The U.S. Department of Transportation is in the process of a third rulemaking that aims to bring greater transparency to fare- and fee-selling practices. Consumer advocates and some travel sellers don't think the first draft of the latest installment goes far enough.

Rockefeller, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, adds a high-profile voice to the call for greater fee transparency. He also is pushing back at the so-called Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, which has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives and now sits with his committee. The airlines heavily favor the bill, which would roll back some previous full-fare advertising requirements.

A press release announcing Rockefeller's inquiry said it "builds on concerns raised recently by consumer advocates about whether [ancillary] fees are sufficiently disclosed to consumers shopping for flights, in order to allow for true price comparison." Rockefeller's letter asks airlines to disclose how much revenue various ancillary fees generate, price ranges of different add-ons and fluctuations in ancillary pricing during the past five years.

What is new here, and not yet addressed by DOT rulemakings, is the focus on passenger data collection.

"An additional transparency issue concerns how airlines handle personal information that they obtain from consumers through the ticket purchase process or otherwise," according to Rockefeller's letter. "Data collected during ticket purchase can include a passenger's name, credit card numbers, date of birth, addresses, travel destinations and travel companions, among other information.

"No comprehensive federal privacy law currently applies to the collection, use and disclosure of consumer travel information," the letter continued. "Consumer advocates have expressed concern that airline privacy policies can contain substantial caveats and that it is difficult for consumers to learn what information airlines and others in the travel sector are collecting, keeping and sharing about them."

Rockefeller asked airlines how long such personal data are retained, sources of such information, how privacy and data security protections are ensured, whether airlines sell or share such data and whether they "provide consumers the right to (i) access the information you maintain about them and (ii) correct such information."

So what lies ahead? Rockefeller neither publicly has called for hearings nor proposed any new, airline-specific legislation. He only asked that airlines reply to his questions by Sept. 5.