Reading between the lines of a government document is a risky business, but sometimes it has to be done, and this is one of those times.



We refer to the Transportation Department's (DOT) periodic "Significant Rulemaking Report," a monthly update on the status of pending regulations and other work in progress.

For several years, the list, which is a simplified summary of pending proposals, has included an item relating to additional airline consumer protection rules. Its official birth date was April 18, 2011.

That item took on a new urgency in the fall of 2011, when the summary suddenly tripled in size with the addition of proposals to impose significant new regulations on travel agents.

As then revised, the DOT proposal would require travel agents to adopt minimum customer service standards, to disclose the names of airlines they sell or don't sell so that consumers won't be misled into thinking they sell all airlines, and to disclose whether they use "preferential" (read "biased") displays or receive incentive payments from airlines they represent.

The updates do not disclose where the DOT got these ideas or why it thinks it must pursue them.

The expanded consumer protection item also included a proposal to require airlines to disclose ancillary services in all sales channels, an idea favored by travel agents and previously proposed by ASTA.

The summary reappeared monthly, substantially unchanged, for two-and-a-half years until a few weeks ago, when a revised version showed up with some puzzling changes. Gone, in a flash, was the idea of requiring agents to disclose their incentive agreements.

We might never understand why it should take the DOT more than two years to conclude that this was a stupid idea, but good riddance. We have other tea leaves to ponder.

Among other changes, the proposal to impose minimum service standards on travel agents now refers to "large" travel agents. Maybe it was always the government's intention to limit this to large agencies, and the revised summary is merely more precise. That's possible, but it remains a mystery why only the customers of large agencies deserve the benefit (if that's what it is) of a government guarantee of good service.

Also changed is the proposal for requiring airlines to display ancillaries in all sales channels. It is now limited to "fees for certain basic ancillary services."

Presumably this means the more commonly used services such as checked baggage or upgraded legroom, but the proposal is still silent on ASTA's perennial concern that these services have to be not only visible in the GDS channel, but bookable.

And in what might be an effort to reinforce its jurisdiction over intermediaries, the DOT says it wants to codify a new definition of "ticket agent," though of course it doesn't say how or why.

The DOT has been chewing on these issues for over three years. During most of that time, its description of this work in progress has remained unchanged until last month, when some items were added, some dropped and some mysteriously changed.

The department's previous target dates for acting on these proposals have come and gone several times. It is now projecting that it can publish a formal rulemaking notice and request public comments as early as this month, giving the industry 60 days to analyze this brew and offer feedback.

Based on the tea leaves we've seen to date, we're in no hurry.
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