Punish crooks, not honest agents

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If we travel agents keep doing what weve always done, well continue getting what weve always gotten.

Thats the lesson were repeating in Pennsylvania, where legislators continue to push for a seller-of-travel law requiring travel agents to register and secure a bond if they want to stay in business.

Trade groups have talked extensively with Pennsylvania officials about House Bill 169. In fact, the Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN) and ARTA historically have opposed seller-of-travel laws across the board. We simply dont believe regulators have ever made the case, in any jurisdiction, for saddling travel agencies with more rules, registration fees and bonding expenses than other small businesses.

If any sellers of travel defraud Pennsylvania consumers, then throw the book at them, but dont penalize every mom-and-pop agency and home-based agent for those few bad apples.

More than a dozen states have some form of a seller-of-travel law on the books, and shame on us if we dont apply what weve learned from those laws as we fight in Pennsylvania:

" The crooks dont register, plain and simple.

While law-abiding storefront agencies and home-based agents open their wallets and comply with these rules, the scam artists typically ignore them. How easy is it for travel scammers to make up registration numbers and claim to be bonded, so that they can continue taking in money until state authorities stumble over them some day?

" Travel suppliers should stop getting a free ride.

Like seller-of-travel laws in most states, Pennsylvanias draft bill exempts airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and car rental companies.

Why do we believe thats completely unfair? Think Regency Cruises, Premier Cruise Lines, Renaissance Cruises, National Airlines, Vanguard Airlines, Far & Wide, Fling Vacations and Kingdom Tours.

Were urging legislators in Pennsylvania and other states to stop offering these traditional exemptions for suppliers, whose possible collapse could cause much higher losses for consumers than any scam or bankruptcy traced to a single travel agent.

" The big, national travel agencies also do not deserve a free ride.

The latest draft of the Pennsylvania legislation specifically exempts AAA, American Express, Cendant, Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Priceline.com, Hotwire.com and other national travel agencies.

ARTA and OSSN absolutely oppose this exemption. Its completely unfair to give these big agencies a free pass while Pennsylvanias small travel agencies are left holding the bag.

Weve discussed this inequity with our friends in the National Federation of Independent Business and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Pennsylvanias legislators can expect a tough fight if they follow through with this huge loophole for the big guys.

" We need to fight travel scams from the ground up -empowering consumers, not penalizing agents.

When we met with officials at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg this month, we proposed a public-private partnership to teach the states consumers how to recognize, avoid and report travel scams.

Were planning tests of these travel-rights campaigns in January (during Wave Month) in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and well spend our time in the spring sharing the results with every member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

No one hates travel scams and cons more than Americas hard-working, professional travel agents. Its high time, however, that we stand up more forcefully for new directions in state seller-of-travel laws that wont leave us holding the bag for everyone else.

Gary Fee is president and founder of the Outside Sales Support Network. Alan Fiermonte owns Down2EarthAdventures in Conshohocken, Pa. John Hawks serves as president of ARTA. Barry Richcreek co-owns Richcreek Vacation Center in Harrisburg, Pa., with his wife, Marge.

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