Tuesday, 6 July 2004

The Amazing Race 5, Episode 1

Santa Monica, CA (USA) - Montevideo (Uruguay) - Punta del Este (Uruguay) - Punta Ballena (Uruguay)

Before the teams in The Amazing Race 5 even get off the Santa Monica Pier, Jim is knocked down by another racer at the starting line, tears open his leg on a nail, and needs 25 stitches before he can get on the first flight.

We worry about flying, but the greatest dangers are on the ground, and closer to home — in this case, literally underfoot before the would-be travellers have gone anywhere at all. We worry about whether the natives are friendly, but the people we need to watch out for most may be our fellow travellers.

After that, at the end of the pier, the racers open the box of clue cards, and learn that they have to fly to Montevideo, Uruguay, on either United Airlines or American Airlines.

Both these airlines have virtually identical schedules, departing and arriving within an hour of each other. Both go via Miami and Buenos Aires, but the Buenos Aires stop isn’t mentioned or shown on the route map, perhaps to make the flights look more direct than they are. This is the second time the race has stopped in Argentina — The Amazing Race 2 even spent a night on the Argentine side of the river at Iguassu Falls — without the country even being mentioned. (More on that next week.)

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such blatant paid airline product placements in “The Amazing Race”, especially on the opening leg. But what got my goat was that immediately after the racers are shown making their choice between Air Tweedledum and Air Tweedledee, viewers are treated to an announcement that “The Amazing Race 5” is sponsored by Expedia.com.

As has often been the case, there would have been better ways to get there, if the racers were allowed to take them. As is also often the case, especially between distant points without same-plane service (the USA Department of Transportation allows airlines to label connecting flights as “direct”, but that’s another story), the fastest and most direct flights would not have been on an airline based in the USA, and not even on an airline of the destination country, but on the airline of a third, intermediate country. And in most cases they would have involved a combination of flights on more than one airline.

The American Airlines and United Airlines flights got to Montevideo between noon and 1 p.m. (12:00-13:00). Using LAN Chile — one of only 2 airlines, neither based in the USA, with nonstop service from Los Angeles to South America — via Lima and either Santiago or Buenos Aires, they could have left at about the same time, and arrived between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning, 3 hours earlier than the flights they took.

The racers’ plight in being forced to take less direct (and in real life often more expensive, although CBS doesn’t care in the race) flights on USA-based airlines is not, unfortunately, unique or even particularly unusual. In support of its commitment to free trade, and its principled opposition to protectionism, the USA government requires all travel that it funds, even in part (such as academic research trips on projects that have received even the smallest government grants) to be entirely on USA-based airlines, whenever possible, almost entirely without regard for how much less direct or more costly they are.

Choices of long-haul flights have typically been decisive factors in “The Amazing Race”, making differences of hours compared to mere minutes saved by bribing or imploring taxistas to drive more recklessly, or by completing tasks more quickly. But even if the racers were free to choose their flights, would the show’s sponsors at Expedia.com find the best ones? No.

It’s not just Expedia.com. I also checked Orbitz.com and Travelocity.com, using a sample date of 13 January 2005. (You can’t check flights for past dates on any of these Web sites, but the schedules are essentially unchanged except that United has shifted its gateway for the Buenos Aires/Montevideo flight from Miami to Washington Dulles Airport, and Aero Continente has discontinued its Lima - Buenos Aires service, leaving only LAN Peru with an overnight flight.)

None of these three largest Internet travel agencies lists the fastest and most direct flights at all. Even if I ask for the earliest possible arrival and for all possible alternatives, and specify that I’m willing to use a combination of multiple airlines, none of them list any flights on this date arriving earlier than noon (Varig, via São Paulo). On some other dates, they find the Santiago connections arriving at 9:50 a.m., but none find the interline connections via Lima and Buenos Aires to LAN Peru (or Aero Continente ) and Aerolineas Argentinas that leave at 12:35 p.m. and arrive at 9:05 a.m.

So how did I find these flights? I looked in the Sabre computerized reservation system, one of the four such CRS’s used by travel agents.

Savvy travellers are probably saying, “But doesn’t the same company (Sabre Holdings) own both the Sabre CRS and Travelocity.com?” Yes, it does. But they provide different information to consumers on their Travelocity.com Web site than they do to travel agencies.

Why? Government regulation, or the lack thereof.

The CRS’s were all originally developed and owned by individual airlines. After airline routes and fares were deregulated in the USA in 1978, there were repeated consumer and travel agent complaints that the airlines that owned the CRS’s were using their oligopoly power to bias CRS displays against competing airlines, in restraint of trade. As a result, CRS regulations were adopted in the USA, Canada, and the European Union requiring the CRS’s to provide travel agents with unbiased displays and rankings of flights on the basis of trip duration, price, arrival or departure time, or whatever other criteria a travel agent specifies in their query.

None of the big four global CRS’s are owned by airlines any more, but they remain an oligopoly, and these regulations remain in force — for the time being — to ensure consumers access to competitive information. CRS’s can’t sell positioning or ranking in responses to travel agent queries.

When the CRS regulations were adopted, the World Wide Web didn’t exist yet, and there was no way for CRS’s to provide information directly to travellers. In the absence of regulations, retail travel agencies and Web sites — including those like Travelocity.com that are owned by the CRS’s — are free to filter, rearrange, or sell positioning on their displays. And they do.

So Sabre is required to show the flight that arrives first, if a travel agent knows how to ask, but is free to show visitors to Travelocity.com a different flight, in response to the same request, if they think it more profitable to do so.

That’s not in consumers’ or travellers’ interests, and the evidence of cases like this makes clear that the CRS regulations should be extended to cover the information CRS’s provide directly to consumers, especially on their own Web sites.

Instead, ignoring the obvious reality of a continuing CRS oligopoly and its anti-consumer, anti-competitive implications, the USA Department of Transportation published a decision in January 2004 that will entirely repeal the CRS regulations in the USA, effective 31 July 2004, unless further action is taken by the DOT or Congress.

If this happens, CRS’s will be free to give travel agents — who pay them for access to a neutral information source — the same biased and filtered information displays they now give retail consumers. Some travel agents will still want to serve as advocates for travellers against the interests of airlines, but they will no longer have the tools to be able to do so: the CRS’s will be free to reinvent themselves as advertising, marketing, and “distribution” channels for airlines, rather than unbiased information utilities.

The bottom line is that in what government regulations in the USA require, for many travellers — use of USA-based airlines, or those on which they have fraudulently put their flight numbers — and what they no longer will require — unbiased information provided to travel agents by the CRS oligopoly — those rules are depriving consumers and travellers of the best choices and information, in order to advance the interests of USA-based airlines.

The impending “sunset” of the CRS regulations is a disaster for consumers. It’s the inevitable result of a regulatory process in which the primary participants were lobbyists for the economic interests of different segments of the travel industry, and the politicians who should have been watching out for the interests of the travelling public abdicated that responsibility.

See you next week in Uruguay. Maybe we’ll have time for dinner in Montevideo, instead of just running through, or taking a bus out of town directly from the airport. One of the best meals in my life was at just this time last year, at the restaurant El Palenque , in the Mercado del Puerto , while waiting for the high-speed ferry to Buenos Aires to depart from the terminal across the road. At Uruguayan prices, it was a lavish feast that the teams in “The Amazing Race” could easily afford on what’s left of the US$97.23 per couple they were given at the starting line. And there’s plenty more to see and do there. But I’ve got to go now — I’ve got an instant message from Argentina.

(If you missed it, the first episode of “The Amazing Race 5” will be re-broadcast in the USA on CBS this Saturday night from 8-9:30 p.m. EDT/PDT, 7-8:30 CDT/MDT.)

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 23:41 (11:41 PM)

One factor that I've been told comes in to play is that the production staff try to get to the destination country well ahead of the racers - they sometimes fly in on the same flights, but prefer to keep a step ahead. It's possible some production types were on the LAN Chile connection; it's also possible that AA and UA paid a promotional consideration, and LAN Chile simply didn't pay up. In previous seasons I think carriers from other countries were used to get from the US to points in Europe or Africa.

You're right, it was confusing that they didn't mention the stopovers enroute to Montevideo; it took me a while figuring it out this morning on SABRE.

Posted by: ginny, 7 July 2004, 14:00 ( 2:00 PM)

Great column. Wish I'd seen the show, but it's not on tv here in Argentina.

Your biggest fan.

Posted by: Ruth, 7 July 2004, 14:32 ( 2:32 PM)
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