Travel Tech Provides Comments on First Page Search Result Requirements at (ACPAC) December Public Meeting
Oral Comments of
Laura Chadwick, President & CEO, Travel Technology Association
United States Department of Transportation
Airline Consumer Protection Advisory Committee:
Concerning First-Page Search Result Requirements in the
Ancillary Fee Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
December 8, 2022
On behalf of the Travel Technology Association (“Travel Tech”), thank you for the opportunity to address this meeting of the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee (ACPAC) about the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Ancillary Fees Transparency Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proceeding. Travel Tech advocates for public policy that promotes market transparency and competition to encourage innovation and preserve consumer choice. We represent the leading innovators in travel technology, including online travel agencies and metasearch companies, travel management companies, global distribution systems, and short-term rental platforms.
Travel Technology Association members are critical stakeholders in this matter as they will directly implement many provisions of the final regulation. Millions of Americans rely on our member companies to do comparative searches to find the best flight options and to book their airline travel. Many of the proposals in the proposed NPRM will impact intensely complex back-end systems maintained or supported by Travel Tech members and the corresponding display of billions of dynamic data points. As such, our members continue to review the text of the proposed rule and develop our written comments to be submitted in a few days on December 19th, 2022 or, as we hope, on some extended due date that will allow us further time to complete our deliberations and provide robust comments to the Department.
First and foremost, the Travel Technology Association applauds the Department’s continuing work and commitment to this vital consumer protection matter. Travel Tech has long advocated for ancillary fee transparency for airlines and resort fees for hotels as well. In 2014 and 2017, we supported the Department’s proposals to require airlines to share their ancillary fee information with ticket agents so that consumers could have complete visibility into the cost of their flight options, regardless of whether they use a direct or indirect channel to book their air travel. This is a worthwhile undertaking, and we stand ready to support you, ACPAC members, and the Department as it moves forward.
One of the core provisions of the proposed ancillary fee rule would require the first-page display of the fees for a first checked bag, a second checked bag, and a carry-on bag, adjusted based on passenger-specific information along with the sought-after fare and schedule information – with no links, roll-overs or other forms of flexible display allowed. The proposed rule would also require first-page display of the change and cancellation fees, and family-travel seat fees, again with no links and roll-overs or other forms of flexible display allowed[U1] . These provisions taken together are problematic for both consumers and Travel Tech members alike.
Consumers value online travel agents for their ability to facilitate the easy comparison and booking of multiple multi-brand options in a single location. By their very nature, our members’ sites offer consumers an array of flight options and information. For example, flying to Washington, DC, can entail flight search results for three different airports across at least 20 different airlines – the results can be overwhelming even for those who make this area our home. To mitigate the impact of a dizzying amount of information, online travel agents routinely invest in user interface (UX) design upgrades and usability testing to maximize customers’ satisfaction and streamline their buying experience. Travel Tech members, as a result, are deeply concerned about the Department’s proscriptive requirements to display ancillary fee information on the first page of search results and not on subsequent pages that customers routinely navigate through once a particular flight option has been selected.
A first search page display requirement for all critical ancillary fees will result in unacceptable screen clutter that will make locating flight options and information more, not less, of a challenge for consumers. Such information overload would diminish the very value our Travel Tech members offer to consumers in the first place. An overwhelming search experience could provide a real impetus for consumers to forgo comparison shopping altogether. Instead, they would potentially seek out airlines’ far more streamlined and to-the-point web pages since airlines only need to display their ancillary fee information alongside their flight offerings.
Members of the Travel Technology Association strongly believe that flexibility is essential on when and where ancillary information is displayed in search results – so long as consumers can view this information before purchase. Indeed, the Department itself states the same in the proposed rule on Page 63725 — that the goal is “to ensure that fee information about ancillary services that are critical to a consumer’s decision making is disclosed at all points of sale before ticket purchase.” (emphasis added)
Further making a case for flexibility is that the Internet is changing, and how consumers search for flight information will undoubtedly change too. I speak from my recent and direct experience working with cutting-edge innovators developing virtual, augmented, and mixed reality technology, encompassing Web3 and metaverses. The internet searches of the future will be far more immersive and embodied, with the results contextualized, even when viewed on a laptop or mobile device. Information will no longer be statically placed on a webpage or traditional seat map. Instead, it could be “seen” online floating over the seat in a “digital twin” replica of the interior of an airplane. Leading consumer brands have already begun to offer products online in this manner as if the internet shopper is viewing them in person; one can imagine how this could apply to many facets of the travel industry. By requiring the use of weblinks, rollovers, or even an opt-out option, the Department may inadvertently forestall the development of better, more innovative display options for consumers in the future.
I thank members of the ACPAC and the Department for the opportunity to address these important points about the need for flexibility in the display of critical ancillary fees to support customers and innovation as well. I welcome your questions and comments.