Privacy and travel — the DOT starts to take a look


Many of us have heard about privacy issues with Websites and in general with the Internet. We have been warned about identity theft and heard about government and department store breaches that revealed hundreds of thousands of personal records to hackers. We don’t hear much about airline travel and privacy. No one is really minding the store.

At the meeting of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections on May 21st, held at the FAA Building in Washington, DC, one of the most auspicious privacy meetings in DC history took place — the first meeting between the main government watchdogs and privacy enforcers together with airlines, central reservation systems, travel agents and consumers. Never before have these stakeholders been together to discuss privacy and your travel records.

It is time that the aviation system and its government overlords begin paying attention and start listening to the American public. But is there anything to listen to? Is there a problem? So far the attitude has been: we aren’t getting complaints about privacy and travel, therefore there must not be a problem.

There is a problem. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the main enforcer and promulgator of privacy standards in the country, noted that during the past year there were 369,132 identity theft complaints. He explained that those privacy complaints made up the top group of complaints and made up 18 percent of the overall privacy complaints files with the FTC.

A bit of arithmetic results in the overall number of privacy complaints received by the FTC at something over 2 million complaints. The number of privacy complaints registered with DOT was zero. That’s right, zero. The director of the department that deals with complaints (incidentally, one of the best in the government) noted that he had gone back in his records and couldn’t find any privacy complaints reported.

The FTC deals with privacy for the country except for aviation. There, DOT has responsibility. State and local governments are excluded from enforcement or policing of privacy standards. The field of aviation privacy protection is a federal responsibility handled by DOT. Either they are in a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil mode or perhaps there are reasons why privacy is not reported to DOT.

Travel agency representatives suggested that people in the travel world are far more sensitive to privacy and therefore it would be expected that privacy breaches would be rare. Airlines all confessed to several privacy problems that were not reported in the DOT statistics because they were handled by the airlines and did not result in complaints lodged with DOT.

However, the consumer presenter at the meeting, Edward Hasbrouck, noted another factor that might have had the effect of failing to register any privacy issues. He showed a screen shot of the Department of Transportation (DOT) Complaint page and noted that it has a section for complaining about:

Safety and Security Complaints
Airline Service Complaints and Comments
Disability and Discrimination Complaints

But, nothing mentioned privacy.

When this was pointed out, several DOT representatives at the meeting were embarrassed. Others suggested that because airlines are so competitive and would love to get their hands on each other’s customer information, they have developed extraordinary privacy protection systems.

Plus, few think about any connection between aviation and privacy and the DOT. This is new ground being walked in Washington. There is a bit of education that has to be done to let airline travelers know their privacy rights and the privacy policies of the airlines. And then more education to let airline passengers know that if they have concerns about privacy, they should turn to the DOT.

DOT is the department in our government that is responsible for privacy and airline travel. This includes all airlines serving the United States, all travel agents, all on-line travel agencies, all corporate travel departments and the underlying computer reservation systems that power airlines and travel agencies.

Either we as air travelers are benefiting by an extraordinarily good privacy protection system or problems are not being reported within the system. I think that it is the latter.

The meeting on May 21st where JetBlue, Alaska, Delta, Spirit Airlines, GDSs, travel agencies and consumers had a chance to speak only opened the door to the world of privacy protection at DOT.

I expect that the DOT complaint page will change soon to include privacy issues and I hope to see a working group developed to put together best practices for aviation privacy protections. It is about time.