But when it comes to US federal rulemaking about travel search online, the metasearch players are putting up a united front.
The companies have submitted a joint statement attacking a proposed US Department of Transportation (DOT) rule that would apply stricter consumer protection regulation to flight comparison websites, among eight other rule changes.
(The DOT has extended the filing deadline for public comment to the proposed rule-making until next Monday, as noted by the Travel Technology Association.)
A battle three years in the making
The DOT has regulatory power over the advertising and sale of air transportation.
But metasearch companies have long insisted that, because they do not sell or book air transportation directly, they are, therefore, not positioned similarly to the entities (such as air carriers and ticket agents) that are usually understood to fall within the scope of the DOT’s regulations and standards.
Yet the DOT may broaden, or clarify, its definition of “ticket agent” to include websites “regardless of the manner in which they are compensated for their role in arranging air transportation.” Its revised definition, as written, would include metasearch websites.
In their comment to the DOT, the companies’s lawyers counter:
“Metasearch sites are planning and information sources for consumers, more akin to a newspaper or magazine travel section than airline websites or online travel agencies (OTAs)….
“Ultimately, metasearch sites’ “surfacing” of information about air transportation options and providing a link to the air transportation seller does not make metasearch sites “ticket agents” – irrespective of whether they are compensated in some cases if a consumer proceeds to make a booking through an airline or ticket agent…”
“The metasearch site does not control the booking function of the seller; it cannot reserve, book, sell, or ticket any air transportation.”
The most immediate likely change
A metasearch rule would impact the companies’ business models. But it would also have practical changes.
The practical change that might be most immediate is that metasearch sites would be required to identify flights operated under a code-sharing arrangement by carrier name, at least via a rollover or hyperlinked display.
In a concession on that particular point — separate from the definition of whether or not they count as “travel agents” — the half-dozen metasearch giants have come up with a compromise:
“We are proposing that the disclosure must appear in text format immediately adjacent to each code-share flight displayed in response to an itinerary request by a consumer….”
“As an alternative to the proposed standard, we ask whether a code-share disclosure appearing immediately adjacent to the entire itinerary as opposed to appearing immediately adjacent to each code-share flight would be a sufficient way to meet the “easily visible” standard.”
Back to the issue of whether metasearch sites are “ticket agents” as the DOT defines them. One of the more surprising counter-arguments by the lawyers is this:
“The metasearch site, in connection with a consumer’s search and the provision of responsive data, does not collect personal identification, payment, or frequent flyer information from the user.”
That statement is surprising because the conventional wisdom in the industry is that metasearch sites are about to start doing precisely that.
Plans are believed to be afoot for metasearch sites’s user interfaces to ask users for identifying information, payment details and loyalty program membership accounts to help filter relevant search results and speed up the purchase.
This functionality is said by some insiders to be vital for mobile apps and websites. Users want to be able book travel without having to leave the metasearch sites themselves and without having to type in their credit card and loyalty numbers repeatedly on tiny devices.
But metasearch companies argue they are not actually “collecting” that information. They are passing it through to the third-parties.
In an interview with Tnooz, a source at one of the companies who was familiar with the drafting of the joint comment but who didn’t want to speak specifically to this issue, said that that’s not relevant.
It is abundantly clear to the consumer that they’re booking with a third-party like, say, [Wholesaler, OTA, or Airline Brand X], and not the metasearch provider, even if the booking takes place within a meta’s shell. The consumer also agrees to the third-party’s terms and conditions….
The consumer knows that what’s happening is what the meta has always provided, a third-party to actually do the booking.
It’s hard to guess what the DOT will ultimately decide. There have been hundreds of comments on the proposed rule-making, which also deals with other consumer protection issues.
For context on the metasearch space in general, see The Economist’s Gulliver blog post “Comparative advantage”