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Travel agencies have few controls

February 07, 2000|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Travel agencies don't need a business license, bonding or insurance to do business in Maryland.

The state has never required licensing for that kind of business and doesn't require bonding or insurance, said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose office last week launched a consumer protection investigation into alleged problems at CW Travel in Hagerstown.

Numerous people have told authorities they purchased travel arrangements from CW Travel that were not delivered. The East Washington Street business has since closed permanently.

Over the past 5 to 8 years, Curran said his office has dealt periodically with other travel agencies having similar problems.

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In the travel business, a lot of money is paid up front, leaving a travel agency with cash on hand that it doesn't have to pay out right away, he said.

When a travel agency fails to deliver on its promises to clients, Curran said his office is empowered to pursue the matter civilly or, if warranted, criminally.

The state steps in only if there's a problem, he said. Otherwise, a travel agency isn't subject to licensure at the state or county level in Maryland.

Maryland is typical in its nonregulation of travel agents, according to James Ashurst, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria, Va.

Only 13 states in the country have registration or other laws on the books that apply specifically to sellers of travel, Ashurst said.

Maryland and West Virginia are not among those states, he said.

Pennsylvania's sole travel-related law pertains only to operators of bus tours within the state, Ashurst said.

"Unfortunately, pretty much anybody can stick a sign in their window saying that they're a travel agent," he said.

That's why a consumer needs to do some homework before choosing a travel agent, Ashurst said.

To sell airline tickets, an agency has to be bonded through the Airline Reporting Corporation, the clearinghouse for airlines, he said.

There are a growing number of travel agencies that specialize in cruises and don't sell air fare, so they don't fall under the Airline Reporting Corporation bonding requirements, Ashurst said.

To help protect themselves against problems, consumers should deal with members of travel industry associations, like the American Society of Travel Agents, Cruise Lines International Association and the United States Tour Operators Association, he said.

The American Society of Travel Agents requires members to be accredited by the Airlines Reporting Corporation, Agent Reporting Plan, to be endorsed by the International Airlines Travel Agency Network or to hold $1 million in Errors and Omissions insurance.

Cruise Lines International Association provides a fidelity bond that reimburses cruise lines for protecting passengers against defaults by CLIA-affiliated agencies.

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