Bill designed to protect travelers could prove difficult to implement

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Jonathan S. ZissBy now, most travelers are used to the many pages of disclaimers and special offers that come along with booking hotel reservations online. But warnings about potential health and safety dangers at each specific site? And the hours during which a CPR-trained staff member is on duty?

If the authors of a bill currently pending in Congress have their way, that information would soon be required on travel websites.

The bill, dubbed the International Travelers Bill of Rights Act, was first introduced in 2009 as H.R. 3099 by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to increase awareness among U.S. travelers of the potential dangers of vacationing abroad.

The bill was reintroduced last month in both the House (as H.R. 3241) and the Senate (as S. 1753). It requires operators of travel websites to disclose details concerning potential health and safety hazards, as well as onsite medical and other protective services, associated with each specific international vacation destination advertised on their sites. If passed, the bill would have a tremendous impact on the daily operations of many entities in the international travel industry -- namely travel website operators, airlines, hotels and resorts and travel agencies -- and potentially expose them to new liability for dangers presented to travelers all over the world.

The International Travelers Bill of Rights Act requires any operator of a website that "provides access to international travel services" to publish on its website, in a clear and conspicuous manner, details regarding the onsite health and safety services at each destination, including whether it:

  • Keeps a doctor or nurse on premises to treat guests.
  • Employs or contracts with other personnel trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
  • Has an automated external defibrillator and employs or contracts with an individual on premises trained to use it.
  • Employs or contracts with a lifeguard trained in CPR (for destinations that provide a swimming pool or other water-based activities).

Any country-specific travel warnings and alerts or other relevant information compiled by the Department of State are also required to be published on the site.

If onsite health and safety services provided by the destination are not available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the bill requires that travel website operators outline the days and hours of availability. If the travel website operator does not have information on the services above or that information is not available for a particular destination, the website must display the following warning: "This destination does not provide certain health and safety services, or information regarding such services is not available." Additionally, as first introduced, the bill would have website operators display consumer complaints about each destination regarding "poor medical care, unsafe or unsanitary facilities or other health-related issues" as well as establish a protocol for suspending a destination from promotion on the website as a result of such complaints. It remains to be seen if this requirement makes its way back into the current version. The bill sets the Federal Trade Commission as the agency in charge of enforcing these provisions of the International Travelers Bill of Rights Act.

The bill is commendably aimed at protecting U.S. consumers from unsafe conditions as they travel abroad. But several of its assumptions do not match up with actual industry practices, and these disconnects pose significant challenges for its passage as well as any practical application of regulations it would trigger.

First, the criteria set forth in the bill to qualify a safe travel destination, such as having a doctor on call 24/7, simply do not exist, whether here in the U.S. or abroad. Hundreds or even thousands of hotels could suddenly be deemed "unsafe" for not meeting standards that are not practiced anywhere.

Second, there is no way to ensure consistency in the information collected and reported by travel websites, nor the validity of consumer complaints against lodging facilities.

Third, the bill will most certainly increase the cost to the traveler. Since the destinations themselves have no reason to supply the information, the cost of gathering it is pushed to U.S. operators, who will pass it on to consumers.

And finally, because travel sellers do not control the properties they promote or have access to the minutiae of their operations, they cannot know what services or protections are available at any given moment, as required by the bill.

Based on these contradictions, the International Travelers Bill of Rights Act may face strong opposition from representatives of the travel and hospitality industries, who will likely argue that it unfairly exposes them to liability for situations they can't possibly report on accurately, let alone control.

But given the immense amount of effort required to comply with its detailed disclosure and reporting regulations, along with the potential to be connected to liability for injuries or deaths at locations around the world (despite the bill's grant of immunity for unknowingly publishing false or incomplete information) all participants in the international travel and hospitality industries should keep an eye on this bill.

Jonathan S. Ziss is a partner in the Philadelphia office of Goldberg Segalla LLP, where he specializes in representing commercial airlines and travel service providers in liability litigation and counseling involving consumer compliance and contractual matters. He can be reached at [email protected]. 

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