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Trade groups want their piece of pie in the sky

Sunday, December 6, 2009

No one would claim that any of the new travel-related laws scheduled to take effect in 2010 are game-changers for travelers. They're relatively minor: a new credit card rule here, a new airport security policy there.

But what kind of law would really improve your travel experience next year?

Instead of asking readers for their opinions, as I do every week, I decided to hand the mike to the trade organizations in Washington that represent various parts of the travel industry. Specifically, I wanted to know which law they'd like to see passed in 2010 that they think would most benefit travelers.

The short answer? Most trade groups want laws authorizing Congress to spend more money, which they say will help us.

An overwhelming majority of the organizations I spoke with said that reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration would be in our best interests. (The bill would fund the FAA through 2012 and improve aviation safety and capacity, among other things.)

"For the sake of the traveling public, the bill should include a new funding commitment for a next-generation air traffic control system and new protections for passengers who are subjected to lengthy flight delays," said William Maloney, the chief executive of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

True, the $53.5 billion FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 would fund much-needed modernization of air traffic control systems. That eventually could make air travel a better overall experience, with greater efficiency and fewer delays. But the so-called "passenger rights" provisions for long flight delays, including a turn-back rule for flights delayed on the tarmac, would affect only a fraction of air travelers.

Speaking of airlines, I wondered what my friends at the Air Transport Association thought would help passengers. James May, the group's chief executive, gave more or less the same answer as his counterpart at ASTA.

"Legislation designating airspace modernization as a national priority and full funding to ensure an accelerated, focused implementation," he said in an e-mail.

Curiously, no mention of the so-called "passenger rights" provisions in the current bill.

I got more or less the same answer from the U.S. Travel Association, which claims to represent and speak for "the common interests of the American travel industry." Roger Dow, the group's president, called air traffic modernization "our number-one legislative priority."

Ditto for the National Business Travel Association, which represents corporate travel. It "would like to see Congress take a 'man to the moon' approach to upgrading the air traffic control system," said Mike McCormick, the association's executive director and chief operating officer.

If I didn't know better, I'd say that all these trade groups are working toward the same goal. Even the ones that represent travelers.

Guess what Jill Ingrassia, the managing director for government affairs at AAA, had to say when I asked her about what law should be passed? That's right: a long-term transportation authorization bill.

"Transportation investments will create jobs, provide a foundation for future economic growth, improve safety and meet personal mobility needs," she said.

Even the Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA), a nonprofit organization that represents travelers, lists the reauthorization bill, and specifically an upgraded air traffic control system, as one of its priorities. (Full disclosure: I volunteer as CTA's ombudsman.)

But next-gen isn't at the top of the organization's legislative to-do list. "That would be a truth-in-advertising law," said Charlie Leocha, CTA's president. Such a law would ensure that the price initially quoted for a travel product would be the one that is paid, and not a penny more.

Only one other group, the American Car Rental Association, went off-script. It supports a bill limiting what municipalities could tax rental car consumers for; anything taxed would have to be tied specifically to the operation of the rental car facility. In other words, no stadium taxes tacked on to your car rental bill. Or, in the words of Robert M. Barton, the association's president, "no taxation without representation."

I'm a little disappointed by many of those answers. The conventional wisdom seems to be that spending more money on infrastructure is the single best way to improve travel.

It's important for trade organizations to make a connection with the everyday traveler. A "what's-good-for-our-members-is-good-for-travelers" argument is highly effective when pushing Congress to pass a law. But reauthorizing the FAA isn't important to the average traveler.

In fact, most Americans travel to their vacation or business destinations by car. And I've heard some persuasive arguments that the current air traffic delays are more the result of irresponsible scheduling by the airlines than the byproduct of an antiquated air traffic control system. Shouldn't there be a law governing that, too?

I had hoped to hear some of these trade groups propose a tough consumer protection law for air travelers. Or perhaps a law that would ban car rental companies and hotels from imposing surprise fees, such as "mandatory" insurance or so-called "resort fees."

The travel industry seems to have its head in the sky when it comes to its legislative agenda, by which I mean that it's thinking about planes and airports. Not a bad place to be -- as long as you're an air traveler. The rest of us will have to fend for ourselves.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine's ombudsman. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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