Upcoming Online Airfare Comparison Changes Raise Privacy, Discrimination Concerns

A group of senators raised concerns Tuesday that a new airfare comparison shopping system currently being developed could lead to unfair discrimination practices based on information the airlines receive from customers.

USA Today reports that six senators sent a letter [PDF] to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx expressing worries about privacy and unfair discriminatory practices that could occur under the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Resolution 787.

The crux of the senators’ concerns rest in the new system for comparison shopping, which requires the large-scale collection, use and storage of sensitive personal information by airlines and travel agents in order to quote consumers prices on flights.

Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Bill Nelson of Florida, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Al Franken of Minnesota, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut say in the letter that they believe the new system could unfairly penalize consumers based on the information they provide the airlines.

Under the new comparison shopping language, which airlines won approval to develop last August, an online travel agent would be able to market a greater variety of services such as bag fees and seat assignments than available at current comparison web sites.

Currently, online travel agents like Orbitz and Priceline provide few options beyond the base price of tickets. Instead, customers have to visit an airline’s website to find and pay for things like baggage fees and seat reservations.

By allowing customers to provide personal information to online travel sites for these extra services, the senators say, airlines could change their prices to either charge more or less based on the provided data.

“For example, airlines, using consumer zip code information, may offer special fares to consumers who live in more affluent zip codes to entice them to travel more frequently while failing to provide those same discounts in lower-income areas,” the letter states. “On the other hand, business travelers who regularly fly the same routes could face higher prices.”

Although the DOT has prohibited airfare vendors from using consumer-provided information to discriminate against consumers based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, political affiliation, disability and national origin, the senators say that by not banning judgement based on income level, marital status and the purpose of travel, the Dept. is leaving the door open to unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Likewise, the senators say that while consumers can decline to provide personal information to airlines, the Resolution does not provide measures to prevent airfare vendors from penalizing those consumers and charging them higher fares.

The letter asks Foxx to provide answers to an array of questions regarding the Resolution including how pricing will work and the privacy requirements that will protect consumers’ information.

Senators raise concerns about airline marketing changes afoot online [USA Today]