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DOT vows to force airline ticket sellers to disclose flight operator under law

Travel websites and airlines must clearly identify which airline is flying each flight when customers use the Web to buy plane tickets, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday, vowing to "pursue enforcement action" against ticket sellers who continue to break the law.

The DOT's announcement came as a huge victory for the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who lost loved ones in a February 2009 crash that claimed 50 lives in Clarence Center and who pushed a major aviation safety law to passage last year.

That law includes a disclosure provision forcing ticketers to identify each flight's operator. The families have been waging a campaign to get online ticket sellers to comply with that provision.

"We are extremely pleased" with the DOT action, said Scott Maurer, a leader of the families group who lost his daughter, Lorin, in the crash. "Consumers deserve to know who really is flying the plane they are about to buy a ticket on, something our loved ones on Continental Flight 3407 didn't know."

Colgan Air, a regional airline that hires less-experienced pilots, operated the flight in Continental's name. Federal investigators identified pilot error as the cause of the crash.

In the wake of pressure from the families and federal lawmakers, the DOT issued a guidance to travel websites and airlines informing them that they must clearly comply with the disclosure provision, which aims to force ticket sellers to say clearly when a smaller regional airline is operating a flight in the name of a major carrier.

"When passengers buy an airline ticket, they have the right to know which airline will be operating their flight," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "For years we've required airlines to inform consumers about code-sharing arrangements, and we'll be monitoring the industry closely to make sure they comply with the provisions of the new legislation."

The DOT made clear it would sanction travel websites or airlines that did not show exactly which airline operates each plane on the first page that pops up after a consumer searches for a flight.

Ticketers will have 60 days to bring their websites into compliance with the law. After that, violators will be subject to fines and "cease-and-desist orders" forcing them to change their policies, a DOT spokesman said.

"Airlines and travel websites will now have absolutely no excuse for not obeying the law and providing travelers with the information they need to know," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who authored the provision forcing the information to be disclosed.

A Buffalo News study in December showed that seven of 10 major online ticketers and one airline, USAirways, were not in clear compliance with the law.

Huge online ticket sellers such as Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak were among those that did not clearly show which airline was operating each flight. Some displayed that information only in links or in "rollover" symbols that required customers to move their mouse to a certain spot to see the information.

Since The News article and the Flight 3407 families' campaign to pressure the websites, Priceline and CheapOAir changed their Web displays to clearly comply with the law.

And on Monday, Travelocity announced that it had done the same.

Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, has met with representatives of several travel sites and has been in touch with the DOT to press for enforcement of the law.

"I appreciate DOT issuing these guidelines, and the focus now turns to ensuring each and every ticket issuer fully implements them," Lee said Monday.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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