Airlines determined to keep hiding fees

by Charlie Leocha on August 31, 2011

Take-off from Logan Airport, Boston

The airlines seem to be intent on keeping travelers from being able to compare the full cost of travel. Somehow they feel that not allowing consumers to compare costs to fly, including ancillary fees, is the right way to go. They are flouting the new DOT disclosure rules on their websites and airlines are fighting the coming rules in court as well.

Even though after listening to an airline representative, one might believe that the airlines are the most transparent industry in the world and that the airlines are developing exciting new ways to market their product using clearly stated ancillary fees, reality seems to tell the opposite story.

The latest rule from DOT that came into effect last Tuesday noted that the airlines must provide a “prominent” link to a page that contains all of their baggage charges and ancillary fees. Of course, the airlines have done no such thing. Most passengers couldn’t find this “prominent” link on most airline home pages.

American Airlines places the link at the bottom of their home page next to the contingency plans and the copyright page. It’s funny that they don’t place their link to their reservations center in just as a prominent position.

Delta Airlines does a fairly good job. At least the notice is clearly labled “Baggage and Service Fees.” But, it is in the smallest typeface on their home page.

United Airlines, in the smallest type face on their home page, has the link listed as “Changed bag rules and optional services.” USAirways handles these fees, also, as “News and Updates.” However, they do better than most.

No one would use the word prominent to describe these notifications.

At the same time that the airlines are downplaying their baggage fees and other service charges, they are fighting the Department of Transportation (DOT) tooth and nail in court. Two smaller carriers — Spirit and Allegiant — are claiming that requiring them to tell customers the full price of travel is tantamount to re-regulation.

Airlines have also, evidently, made some free speech claims. All of this action in court in in the name of withholding pricing information from consumers. The airlines’ lobbying association has also filed court documents to support Spirit and Allegiant.

Allegiant and Spirit—joined by Southwest—also protest that new rules requiring them to include all government taxes and fees in advertised fares violates their First Amendment right to commercial free speech. That is because the DOT cannot show that the existing method is misleading and wants to restrict how they provide information on the taxes and fees, they argue.

The DOT responds that the airlines “cannot plausibly contend that it is unconstitutional to require them to reveal the total cost of the air travel the consumer is considering purchasing.” It cites U.S. Supreme Court rulings it says show minimal impositions on commercial speech are acceptable, particularly if the seller must merely provide “factual and uncontroversial information about the terms under which his services will be available.”

The other rule that has airlines screaming is the requirement that they allow passengers a 24-hour window within which they can change reservations, names or cancel flight if they so decide. Though many airlines already include this as part of their contract of carriage, others don’t. They claim that passengers would take advantage of the rule to make uncalled for changes and destroy low-cost carriers’ business model.

It is rough when your business model depends on hoodwinking your customers and then not letting them back out of the deal, even when there is an honest mistake.

At least the airlines are consistent. They want to make comparing prices as difficult as possible. They don’t want to give passenger any break. And, they think they can squeeze additional profit from a flying public that is deceived and mislead. That’s a shame.

Photo: ©Leocha

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  • Jake

    I’m getting to the point that I’m thinking some Chinese style justice might do us some good.  Execute a few executives whose companies don’t follow the rules, and the rest will scramble to get in line.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

  • Anonymous

    “When there’s an honest mistake.” That’s key. Is there a way to determine that? The risk is that if people can back out of purchases, many will grab seats and reserve them on several carriers whenever they travel, then cancel out of all but one, meanwhile blocking the inventory from other potential travelers, which is bad both for the airline and for the other potential travelers. I’d be glad to agree if you have a way to know when it’s an honest mistake and when it’s what I’m describing.

  • Anonymous

    I presume you’re writing facetiously. In this country we don’t even execute mass murderers without 15 years of appeals first, much less people whose business models we find disagreeable.

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