Legislation

Trump slump in travel? Maybe, maybe not

 

(This is a slightly updated version of my story about the Trump Slump in Travel that appeared on NBC)

 

Is an unwelcoming political climate really creating a “Trump Slump” in the annual $250 billion international inbound business and leisure travel industry in the United States?

“Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe So,” say travel industry experts and number crunchers who point to a variety of hard and soft data points to measure the travel impact of initiatives such as President Donald Trump’s efforts to impose a travel ban barring inbound travelers from some predominantly Muslim countries and the recent ban on electronic devices in the airline cabins of U.S.-bound airplanes from certain countries.

On the up side, international visitors spent more than $20.8 billion on travel to, and on tourism-related activities within, the United States in January 2017, according to a recent report from the National Travel and Tourism Office.

That represents a one percent ($220 million) increase compared to 2016.

Looking back a bit longer, in the 60 days before Trump’s first travel ban was announced (November 29 to January 27, 2017) ForwardKeys, a company that analyzes air travel bookings, found international bookings for visits into the U.S. increased 2.2 percent in comparison to the same period last year.

But right after Trump issued the first travel ban, search engines such as Hopper saw a serious slip in flight searches into the U.S. and in the eight days following January 27 (the day the travel ban was first imposed) ForwardKeys saw international bookings to the U.S. fall by 6.5 percent.

Since then, there’s been a continued slow-down in U.S.-bound air travel bookings.

From January 28 to March 25, bookings were essentially flat, up just. 0.1 percent over the same period last year, according to ForwardKeys.

“When one bears in mind that as a general rule air travel grows consistently ahead of inflation, this is not a particularly encouraging statistic for the USA,” ForwardKeys CEO Oliver Jager told NBC.

The World Travel & Tourism Council agrees. Its data predicts that visitor exports, which is money spent by foreign visitors in the country, will decrease by 0.6 percent in 2017.

Though also attributable to the strength of the U.S. dollar, the dip is predominantly due to “the negative sentiments of the U.S. as a destination created by some of the new policies of President Trump’s Administration,” said Helen Marano, WTTC’s Senior Vice President Government Affairs. “Already, there have been clear signs and data that international visitors are rethinking booking their holidays to the U.S.”

But in a Travel Trends Index report released Tuesday, the U.S. Travel Association said that international travel to the U.S. “defied growth expectations” and actually grew faster than domestic travel during February.

But the group warns of a drop-off in international travel going forward.

The February TTI data — which factors in trips that involve a hotel stay and/or air travel — captures the first full month after President Trump’s first travel ban order was issued, but the U.S. Travel Association economists say that data fully doesn’t fully reflect the impact of the currently-on-hold ban’s impact on demand for international travel to the U.S.

“It’s important to remember that there’s a significant lag time between searches for international trips and when they’re actually taken — typically a matter of months,” said David Huether, the U.S. Travel Association’s senior vice president for research.

“There’s a lot of data out there purporting to show a drop in international travel to the U.S. because of President Trump’s executive order,” said Huether, but “the reality is we do not have a definitive data picture of the order’s impact yet.”

While we wait to get more data and find out whether or not the Trump administration’s travel ban go into effect, “the United States has already sent a message to the global community,” said Ian Jeffries, Vice President, Group Director at public relations and marketing firm Edelman, “We are counseling clients that there is an opportunity for the travel industry to lead and roll out the welcome mat. Tourism business leaders have the responsibility to let the world know that their cities, their hotels, their attractions are still open for business – – and that all travelers are welcome.”

 

Opt out or opt in? Airport scanners & pat-downs in the news

TSA BACKSCATTER

The news has been filled with stories about the TSA’s new enhanced body pat-downs, the new airport body scanners and campaigns encouraging people to opt out of the scanning process. Travelers left and right are posting their accounts of the pat-down process.

Need to catch up? Here are some of the stories:

USA TODAY has posted two opinion pieces on the airport scanning issue:

Our view on security vs. privacy: Critics bash airport scans, but what’s their alternative?

and

Opposing view on security vs. privacy: Honor basic dignity by James Babb and George Donnelly, the co-founders of the We Won’t Fly group.

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, of Miracle on the Hudson fame, shared his opinion about whether or not airline personnel should be subjected to full body pat-downs and advanced imaging scanners.

and

Gizmodo got its hands on – and posted – photographs of 100 of the 35,000 images U.S. Marshals in a Florida Federal Courthouse saved on a scanner. These images don’t come from an airport scanner – Department of Homeland Security and TSA have promised that airport scanners do not have the capability to save images – but Gizmodo and others clearly aren’t confident that’s the real story.

There’s more. LOTS more.  Check back later….

Peanuts on planes: got a problem with that?

Peanuts on a plane.

For a lot of people, that’s a more frightening scenario than snakes on a plane.

And a lot more likely.

And as I wrote in my msnbc.com column this week – Passengers peeved about peanuts on airplanes – a lot of travelers think the best way to enhance airline passenger protections is to ban peanuts on planes.

peanuts

Through September 23rd, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is taking public comment on a wide range of issues affecting airline passengers. Everything from peanuts on planes to involuntary bumping policies to surprise baggage fees.

Of the nearly 1,300 public comments submitted so far, the majority are focused on peanut allergies.

One problem though.

Technically, DOT doesn’t have the authority to change in-flight peanut policies. That’s because an appropriations law from 2000 prohibits the agency from passing peanut rules until a scientific study proves a rule change will actually benefit airline passengers with allergies. And no such study has been completed or commissioned.

Still, the agency is trying to gauge public opinion on ways to handle in-flight peanuts.

“We haven’t said we won’t do anything,” said DOT spokesperson Bill Mosely. “We haven’t ruled anything in or out. So we still do want to hear public comments about peanuts. We plan to read and review them all.”

The problem with flying peanuts

Peanut allergies among children have tripled between 1997 and 2008, and peanut allergies, tree-nut allergies, or both, are reported by 1 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3 million people, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a group that supports discontinuing serving peanuts on planes.

The fear of having a severe reaction from exposure to peanuts while locked inside an airplane keeps some allergy sufferers grounded. Under DOT’s rules, passengers with severe peanut allergies have a qualifying disability covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination by U.S. and foreign carriers against individuals with disabilities.

As far back as 1988, DOT advised airlines to make reasonable accommodations for passengers disabled by their peanut allergies. Most airlines voluntarily comply, but no formal rules have been put in place.

Now, DOT is asking the public to comment on three alternatives to accommodate peanut-allergy sufferers on airplanes:

  • Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights;
  • Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights where a passenger with a peanut allergy requests it in advance, or;
  • Require airlines to establish a peanut-free buffer zone for passengers with severe peanut allergies.

DOT is also asking the public to comment on how peanuts and peanut products carried on board by passengers should be handled.

Peanut protections for airline passengers

If you’ve got a problem with peanuts, here’s what you need to know:

AirTran, Alaska/Horizon, American, Continental, JetBlue and United are among the major domestic airlines that do not serve peanuts. However, most airlines also post notices saying they can’t promise that some items served on board won’t contain nut products or that other passengers won’t bring their own nut products on board.

Two domestic airlines continue to ladle out legumes.

In 2009, both Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines served about 92 million bags of peanuts. “That does sound like a lot of nuts,” said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, “But the airline portion of the overall U.S. peanut business is really very small.”

If alerted, Delta Airlines will accommodate a passenger with a peanut allergy by creating a peanut-free buffer zone for three rows in front of and three rows behind their seat. The airline’s website also notes that when advised that a passenger with peanut allergies is flying, “Gate agents will be notified in case you’d like to pre-board and cleanse the immediate seating area.”

And while Southwest Airlines can’t guarantee a nut-free airplane, it will suspend peanut service on an entire flight if a passenger with an allergy requests it. See Southwest’s peanut dust allergy page for more information.

Want to share your thoughts about peanuts-on-planes? You can leave a comment below.

You can also file comments for the DOT to read (through September 23, 2010) here.

The DOT’s new 3-hour rule: what you need to know

(Denver Airport – courtesy Gregory Thow)

A new set of DOT rules go into effect today promising a wide variety of protections for airline travelers.  As I outlined in an msnbc.com column, Something for everyone in the DOT rules, these regulations offer quite a bit more than just the assurance that passengers will be let off a plane if a delay stretches into the three-hour range.

Here’s just a bit of what you need to know:

Stuck on an airplane?

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must now let you off  a plane by the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.  After two hours, though, the DOT now requires airlines to offer you some water and a little something – maybe pretzels or a granola bar – to eat.  Even if you’re on one of those small, regional carriers.

Each airline must also now have contingency plans in place and those plans need to be posted on an airline’s website. Airlines have more leeway with these plans for international flights – so comparing plans before you buy tickets could be useful.

Got a beef?

To make sure you can file a complaint, airlines must now post e-mail, Web and snail-mail addresses on their Web sites, e-ticket confirmations, and at ticket counters and boarding gates. And no more sending those complaints to the ‘circular file.’ The DOT now requires airlines to answer your complaint within 60 days.

There’s more.  So I urge you read the full column – Something for everyone in the DOT rules – so you know what to expect.

Don’t worry, be happy

And, for those of you worried that the three-hour rule means you’ll be marooned at an airport once you’re let off a delayed plane, airport officials say: “Don’t worry.”

Airport directors I spoke with for a USATODAY.com column – Are airports ready for the three hour rule? – say most every airport, even small ones currently excluded from the new DOT rules, has plans and equipment in place to help airlines comply with the new rules and to accommodate passengers let back into the terminal after a 3-hour delay.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.

DOT to airlines: “If you strand, you will pay”

I heard the news while stuck on a airplane that had been waiting in the de-icing line for almost two hours: the federal government will soon begin fining airlines if passengers are kept locked inside airplanes for long hours without food, water, or the opportunity to deplane.

Most travelers say “It’s about time.”  The airlines? They’re not so happy.  Today the president of the ATA, the trade organization representing the major U.S. airlines said, “We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences – more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience….”

Over the next few months, there’s sure to be plenty of debate about the consequences – good and bad – of the new ruling. So take a moment now, perhaps while you’re stuck on an airplane at an airport somewhere, to read the details of what Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls President Obama’s Passenger Bill of Rights.