The Transportation Department’s aviation enforcement office has put the industry on notice that it believes websites could be misleading consumers when they report that no flights match a particular search request.

In a guidance letter to online travel agencies (OTAs) and travel agents with consumer-facing websites, enforcement chief Samuel Podberesky said that if an airline not covered by the website offers a flight that is not shown in search results, the site cannot tell the consumer that “no flights are available.”

Such a response, he said, will be considered an unfair and deceptive practice for “stating or implying that no flight exists.”

To avoid the possibility of enforcement action, the letter said websites should respond with language along these lines: “no flights are available from the airlines we search” or “no nonstop flights are available from airlines covered by this website.”

The guidance letter suggested that websites could include a hyperlink to a list of searched airlines, but did not make that a requirement.

ASTA, in a statement to members and the media, explained it this way: “DOT is saying that while agents are not required to include flights from all airlines in search processes, consumers may be misled by the simple ‘no flights exist’ message when there are in fact such flights available.”

The letter, posted on the DOT’s website, did not refer to any history of consumer complaints or otherwise explain the origin of the plan.

The letter gives the industry until Nov. 19 to bring websites into compliance.

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