Q: The Department of Transportation (DOT) keeps issuing new rules governing how agencies must sell air travel, and Congress gets into the act every so often, too. The DOT fined agencies and tour operators $670,000 in 2012 for violations of various rules. To avoid a big fine, my agency needs a good understanding of the statutes and regulations. Is there any single place where we can find all the up-to-date federal laws and regulations that apply to travel agencies?
There is only one place: ASTA's January 2013 publication "U.S. Travel Agency Regulatory Compliance Handbook." It is worth becoming an ASTA member just to get this handbook, which is available online to members.
The handbook covers the statutes and regulations governing price advertising and price quoting, restrictions on price increases and opt-outs, baggage fee and codeshare disclosure, ticket expiration date disclosure, hazardous materials and insecticide notices and Secure Flight requirements.
Under each topic, the handbook paraphrases the statute or regulation and provides useful rule interpretations that ASTA has received from the DOT. Even more importantly, it provides practical guidance on how to comply with each requirement and a risk assessment based on whether the DOT is actively enforcing each rule.
At the end of the handbook, ASTA provides a checklist that can be used by front-line agents in communicating with clients about air travel and in issuing tickets and itineraries. There is also a checklist for online booking, as agencies are responsible for compliance even if the vendor of the online booking engine fails to comply.
One very interesting point ASTA makes is that the price-advertising and price-quotation rules apply to any business that merely quotes airfares or packages that include air as a mandatory component, even if you do not issue the ticket. For example, if your agency sells only cruises and then obtains airfare options from the cruise line, you must follow the rules when you provide the airfare quote to the client.
So you must quote the full price, including all fees such as your service fee, disclose the carrier's name and, in the case of codeshares, both the marketing and operating carriers' names. You must also obtain the client's written consent to any airfare price increase; otherwise, you must absorb the increase.
You may not advertise or quote a one-way price when the airfare's rules require a roundtrip, and you may not require the client to opt out of nonmandatory components like travel insurance.
Another interesting point that ASTA notes is that the price rules apply to agents and operators outside the U.S. who advertise prices on their websites that are available to the general public in the U.S.
In practice, agencies with a GDS can comply with most of these rules easily, as the systems have been programmed to comply with the codeshare, baggage-notice and other rules automatically. Agencies without a GDS will have a harder time complying and may want to get help from a host agency.
If you think these rules are a burden, you should realize that the DOT is considering adopting even more rules, including mandatory disclosure of commissions. When the DOT issues its proposals, you should file comments explaining why such rules would not be in the interest of the traveling public. Mark Pestronk is a Washington-based lawyer specializing in travel law. To submit a question for Legal Briefs, email him at email@example.com.