I wrote back in November 2018 of the false, scurrilous, ad hominem attacks on Competitive Enterprise Institute Adjunct Fellow Fran Smith’s appointment as consumer representative to the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee (ACPAC). As I noted, Fran previously spent more than a decade as executive director of a national consumer advocacy organization and is more than qualified to serve on ACPAC as the consumer representative. She also previously spent a decade representing consumers on another federal advisory committee—and one that required a security clearance.
Despite her critics masquerading as consumer advocates, the source of these attacks appears to be the travel technology industry. Justin Bachman, a reporter at Bloomberg, is the latest member of the press to get duped by this astroturf campaign. In his piece, Bachman writes, referring to Fran’s appointment to ACPAC and ACPAC’s National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force:
Consumer advocates and flight attendants, however, accuse Chao of putting the task force squarely in the pocket of airline management. The DOT excluded consumer advocates and the AFA, which had focused on combating harassment, while putting a representative of an anti-regulation, pro-business group on the advisory committee overseeing the task force.
“Failing to include a genuine consumer representative with experience and expertise in consumer travel issues is yet another example of how the DOT is dedicated to the profits of the airline industry at the expense of consumers,” Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of Travel Fairness Now, a consumer-advocacy group, said in a statement.
It’s true that on the day of the first ACPAC meeting in April, an entity calling itself Travel Fairness Now issued a press release and submitted a comment letter making a variety of bogus attacks on Fran. They demanded Fran be removed and replaced by another consumer advocate.
Out of curiosity, I ran a domain name service query using Neustar’s UltraDNS Lookup tool. When I entered travelfairnessnow.org, here is what it returned:
The SOA (Start of Authority) record entry caught my eye:
IN ns1.airtravelfairness.org. lross.tripadvisor.com. 2019032701 3600 7200 1209600 300
And there you have it. Travel Fairness Now is being run out of TripAdvisor, a leading member of the Travel Technology Association. Travel Fairness Now may pretend to be a national consumer coalition, but in reality, it’s a one-man shop operated by a public relations flak named Kurt Ebenhoch based in Chicago.
What is most galling about these sleazy tactics from the travel technology industry is they are implicitly conceding they want Fran to be replaced by another consumer advocate precisely because she hasn’t been bought. This industry has been engaged in a multi-decade battle with air carriers over how to handle travel information. The issues of information disclosure and standardization before the ACPAC is the latest iteration of this fight between two powerful industries.
As Fran stated during the first ACPAC meeting, she wants any recommendations from ACPAC on this and any other subject to be evidence-based and data-driven, and to consider consumer policy trade-offs in a holistic manner. Apparently, the travel technology industry was so offended by this perspective that it dispatched its PR flak Ebenhoch to mount this latest smear campaign.
These efforts paid off to some extent, as they found their latest mark in Bloomberg reporter Justin Bachman, who dutifully reported TripAdvisor’s PR smear as a legitimate complaint. If Bachman wishes to do some interesting reporting, he might consider calling up TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer and asking if Kaufer is aware that he is supporting this unethical influence campaign against a federal advisory committee member. Perhaps he could ask the same question to Travel Technology Association CEO Steve Shur.