Throughout 2017, President Trump's administration hit the travel industry with surprise after surprise, from travel bans to laptop restrictions and Cuba rollbacks, resulting in the kinds of disruptions and uncertainty that never get people packing.
In 2018, industry leaders hope that, with a year under its belt, the administration will settle in. Nobody can be sure that the America-first rhetoric won't continue, but industry leaders are sure to be putting more pressure on government to send out messages of welcome to international visitors, especially in light of falling inbound arrivals.
As Jonathan Grella, the U.S. Travel Association's executive vice president for public affairs, puts it, the travel industry will have to continue dealing with the "ongoing push and pull between travel and security" in 2018. But industry leaders are looking to achieve "some mutual understanding and constructive partnership" with the administration, Grella said, about how to maintain security and dissuade Trump and his administration of the view that closing borders makes the country safer.
"This is the battle of our time for our industry," Grella said.
At a time when inbound tourism has been falling at an alarming rate almost 4% in the first six months of this year (the latest data available) look for the industry to fight to protect Brand USA, the country's private-public tourism marketing organization, which is on the chopping block in Trump's 2018 budget proposal.
Travel organizations, led by U.S. Travel, have been vocal in their support for Brand USA, and that choir is only likely to get louder in 2018 as the industry looks to turn the tide on declining inbound numbers.
"You don't cancel life insurance before jumping out of an airplane," Grella said.
An Oxford Economics report found that in 2016, Brand USA's marketing efforts resulted in 1.2 million incremental visitors who spent $4.1 billion, producing a total economic impact of $8.9 billion. All this from an organization that is not funded by taxpayer money: In addition to funding 50% of the operation from private partner organizations, its public funding is supplied by fees paid by visitors entering the U.S. via the Visa Waiver Program.
But priorities are priorities, and the Trump administration now has to find ways to fund its massive tax cut and will be looking to grab revenue wherever it can. Stay tuned.
Reopening open skies pacts
One dispute the administration may have to finally settle this year is the ongoing battle over open skies agreements.
For almost three years, the Big Three U.S. legacy carriers, Delta, United and American, have lobbied the federal government to sanction the airlines Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, which they accuse of violating international aviation agreements by accepting a combined $50 billion in state subsidies since 2004.
As some analysts and U.S. Travel have noted, Trump doesn't seem to be in any hurry to side with the Big Three on this issue.
"Given that no harm or violation has been found, it seems the administration understands that it's not a good thread to tug at this time," Grella said.
Gary Leff, an analyst who writes the View from the Wing blog, said there is more to the administration's reasons to not side with the Big Three. "It looks like the things the administration seems to care about, like the purchase of Boeing aircraft, mitigate in favor of the gulf carriers," he said, adding that the United Arab Emirates' support for the war on terror is important and could outweigh trade protectionism.
Legislative devils are in the details
ASTA in 2018 has its eye on several bills and laws that could impact its members for better or for worse.
The reauthorization of the FAA bill, extended by six months until March, is riddled with additional disclosures agents would have to make when selling air travel. For example, it would require agents to inform clients about whether the plane will be sprayed with insecticide, the seat selection process, ancillary fees and consumer complaints.
"Agents already have to worry about six to 12 consumer disclosures per transaction, and every go-around with the FAA bill, members of Congress propose new ones," said Eben Peck, ASTA's executive vice president for advocacy. He added that agents who don't make the disclosures face fines of up to $32,000 per transaction. "You can see why we worry about this."
It is ASTA's contention that as Congress has tried to address airline service issues by adding new consumer disclosures, it is travel agents who increasingly bear the regulatory burden, as opposed to the airlines.
Peck said ASTA is trying to "water those down or kill them completely for now," with a long-term goal to create a unified disclosure regime whereby agents can refer their clients to one website with all disclosures, rather than having to spend an extra 10 minutes on the phone for every air booking.
ASTA is also trying to change federal rules governing overtime pay, specifically to get agents exempted the way retail industries are: if an employee of a retail establishment makes 1.5 times the minimum wage and is compensated at least 50% via commissions, the business owner doesn't need to pay that employee overtime for hours that exceed 40 a week.
"The problem is that since 1970, travel agencies have been deemed to 'lack a retail concept' and can't use this exemption," Peck said.
ASTA's lobbying has led to H.R. 2515, the Travel Agent Retail Fairness Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, which would remove travel agencies from what ASTA calls the "blacklist." The bill has 11 bipartisan cosponsors.
Peck said the issue comes down to why can't travel agencies use the exemption when every other retail industry can.
"This will be a focus of ours for the rest of the year," he said.