October 1, 2023

How Do Travel Advisors Know What They Know?

We recently learned that Lufthansa Group (Austrian, Lufthansa, Swiss, Brussels Airlines, and Eurowings) has published…

How Do Travel Advisors Know What They Know?

We recently learned that Lufthansa Group (Austrian, Lufthansa, Swiss, Brussels Airlines, and Eurowings) has published a notice in its eXperts site that states:

…effective immediately Lufthansa Group Airlines will no longer accept payment by VISA cards in BIN Range 428803.

The BIN (the Bank Identification Number usually the first six digits of the credit card) identifies which issuer, typically a bank or credit card company, should receive the request for authorization to determine if the account or card is valid and whether the amount of the purchase is within available limits on the card. In this case, the BIN number 428803 refers to U.S. BANK N.A. ND in the VISA Issuing network. The code is used in the United States and can be found on a credit card used as a debit card

Lufthansa’s explanation for its declaration regarding banks with that BIN Range is that European Union laws require carriers headquartered and incorporated in the EU, and whose card acquirer is also “EU based,” to comply with Directive (EU) 2018/843 regarding preventing the use of the financial system for money laundering to terrorist financing. While reading the EU Directive does not illuminate Lufthansa’s reasons for this action, the underlying reasons are irrelevant to whether travel advisors must comply. It is in their interest to do so because Lufthansa states that “we reserve the right to issue debit memos for any tickets or other documents paid with cards in this range after the publication of this notice.”

This incident illustrates a broader and long-standing issue that affects/afflicts travel advisors throughout the industry.

The site where Lufthansa made this announcement is identified by the carrier group as “the official Lufthansa Group service and information platform for IATA travel agents.” Access to the site is controlled by the login. It is but one of many ways in which Lufthansa and virtually every other airline of consequence to travel advisors, communicate important policy information to advisors.

Some of the other important ones are notices placed in GDS files, each carrier’s Contract of Carriage (variable in length but typically long and complicated), the ARC Agent Reporting Agreement (58 pages), individual airline supplements to the Reporting Agreement), the ARC Industry Agents Handbook (245 pages), ARC Travel Agent Communications (weekly)  and host/consortium contract and policy requirements (variable but also often long and complex). And, of course, as discussed in a prior article, advisors must comply with a vast array of federal and sometimes state disclosure regulations and must remain informed about the infrequent but important changes in those requirements.

Much of this is simply part of what it means to be a professional at a trade. You are required to know about a vast array of information, rules, procedures, and to keep up with changes. Given that few complaints and lawsuits targeting travel agents are filed, it is reasonable to conclude that travel advisors do a good job with their clients. On the other hand, over the years, there have been serious issues of unfair treatment of advisors by some suppliers. One such problem is the question raised by Lufthansa’s posting of a notice in a branded website when failure to comply could lead to a costly debit memo.

I am not picking on Lufthansa because this is a concern involving suppliers in all sectors. I believe that it is unreasonable for any supplier to hold travel advisors accountable for policies that are not reasonably communicated. It’s all well and good to say that advisors must remain aware of company policy as outlined in A, B, and C locations and any changes made thereto, but realistically that imposes an impossible burden on the advisor. And, while advisors must do due diligence when booking reservations, every trip cannot be turned into a lengthy research project that tries to hunt down every possible source of information about a policy that may or may not apply to that reservation.

There is no simple solution to this conundrum. Travel is inherently complicated, a condition made much worse by the pandemic. As we come out of the restrictive environment, advisors are faced with a complex, confusing, and constantly changing set of rules and procedures that may affect their travelers.

The best suggestion I can make in this environment is to do the best you can to find the important information, but document the search so that if an issue arises later that you missed something, you have a record of the lengths you went to in hunting for the relevant information. Suppliers have the leverage in these situations, but in a conflict with suppliers or with clients, having a good record of how you went about your work professionally can be invaluable.

Finally, I recommend you consult with your business legal counsel about a possible notice that you can add to your own communications. This notice would make clear that, as a professional, you are aware of your responsibility to help your client comply with the rules and procedures governing travel in the pandemic or post-pandemic environment. It will likely state that while you exhaust all reasonable sources of information, you cannot guarantee that every supplier has communicated every applicable policy as conditions continue to change. You will then assure clients that you will stand behind them if problems arise from uncommunicated policies.

There is, of course, a danger in this approach in that it emphasizes the unknowns involved in travel planning. The chances of having a problem with an uncommunicated policy are relatively small, but any particular case can be expensive and traumatic. Therefore. consider carefully whether this approach is right for your business. The one certainty in all this is that communication of supplier policy chances is unlikely to improve materially in the relevant future.