If slippery slopes are paved with good intentions, we now have the Transportation Department to thank for giving travel agents something new to slide around on.
Let's say you're a travel agent and you have a client on the phone looking for a flight to Phoenix or Albany, N.Y. You do a few mouse clicks, hit a few keys and the GDS gives you a display of options. If you don't read them off exactly in the order presented, are you guilty of "bias"?
You might not think so, but you might be on that slippery slope. Here's why.
The DOT's aviation enforcement office has decided that "bias" is deceptive, and that any online travel agent or GDS that engages in it must disclose that fact. As we recently reported in our news pages, these views were outlined in an industry "guidance" letter circulated to OTAs and GDSs.
Curiously, the industry letter doesn't really define bias. It states that bias can "include" what the DOT calls "the inequitable display of information in a manner associated with passenger preferences," such as lowest fares or departure times.
You can take that to mean that if an OTA or GDS display purports to rank the available flights by elapsed time, and the shortest flight is on the third line rather than the first, then the display is biased.
The DOT's letter refers only to GDSs and OTAs and says nothing about brick-and-mortar agencies, but here's where we start to slip: OTAs are travel sellers and have more in common with agencies than they do with GDS operators.
If it's deceptive for a travel seller to rearrange the presentation of data to the consumer on a screen, wouldn't the same be true for a brick-and-mortar agent who is communicating by phone or e-mail? Slippery slope.
When you have an avalanche or cave-in, geologists use the term "angle of repose" to describe the degree of steepness at which a pile of loose material will come to rest and achieve stability.
The problem with bureaucratic slippery slopes is that you never know what the angle of repose is going to be. The DOT letter has this to say, for example, about what constitutes adequate disclosure that bias is happening:
"Sufficient notice could include, but is not limited to, a prominent notice on each screen that displays fare and schedule information to the effect that the information displayed is not neutral and that fare and schedule information for certain air carriers available to the OTA or GDS is not equitably displayed."
Suppose there is "bias" on a site but not on a particular screen? An OTA might reasonably conclude that no notice is required on that screen, but nothing would stop the DOT from concluding otherwise.
Suppose the operator of a travel site posts a notice that there is bias. What's to stop the DOT from concluding that the notice isn't "prominent" enough?
The DOT doesn't say in the letter that the notice has to name the air carriers, but what's to stop it from making that a requirement in a follow-up letter?
And on and on it could go.
We understand what the DOT is trying to do, but we also understand how unilateral edicts from a bureaucracy -- which is all this is -- can become law without any sort of open and deliberative process.
If the DOT wants transparency in travel retailing, maybe travel retailers should demand some transparency in DOT policy making.