The National Commission to Ensure Consumer Information and Choice
in the Airline Industry released its final report and found that,
yep, travel agencies have been severely harmed by the airlines and
the Internet; but, nope, they ain’t suggesting anything to do about
it. Then, ASTA sends out a press release “applauding” the results.
Did I miss something here? Maybe it was in the fine print.
Essentially, Congress empowered this commission to study:
whether the financial condition of travel agents is declining and,
if so, its effect on consumers; and whether there are impediments
to obtaining information about airline industry services and
products, and, if so, the effects of such impediments on travel
agents, online distributors and consumers. Eight commissioners
including two travel agents and ASTA’s Paul Ruden interviewed 33
witnesses in four hearings. I went to the one in San Francisco,
where witnesses said agencies should have access to all fares,
yada, yada, yada.
Among the commission’s findings: The elimination of airline
commissions contributed to the decline of the number of travel
agencies (more than one-third have disappeared since the peak of
24,000 in 1994). Duh!; the sharp reductions in travel spending tied
to the recession and post-Sept. 11 environment (this was obviously
the key component, in my view); the airlines’ strategy of
encouraging travelers to bypass agents and book on their own Web
sites and Orbitz. The commission concluded that, although travel
agents are important for unbiased information and recommendations,
consumers nonetheless are a click away from having more travel
information than ever before. So, having fewer travel agents
doesn’t affect consumers.
As commission chairman David Winstead, a lawyer, said in the
conclusion of the report: “We were seriously concerned with the
financial health of the travel agency industry, but we were unable
to recommend new legislation or regulations that would reverse the
trend toward industry consolidation.”
Fine. Great. You feel better already, don’t you? That conclusion
was almost worth all the taxpayer expense.