At a forum in Washington, DC, in the Rayburn House Office Building, consumers squared off against the airlines regarding airfare and airline fee transparency. Basically, consumers asked to be informed of how much the entire air travel package will cost at every point where the airlines choose to sell airline tickets.
Consumers want to be able to compare prices across airlines including optional fees such as baggage and seat-reservation fees.
If anyone has the time and interest in listening to the entire one-hour forum, it can be found here as it was broadcast on CSPAN2.
The forum presented by Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee covered airline fees and airfares from the point of view of the Global Distribution Systems’ (the giant computer reservations systems that power most travel agencies), airlines’ and consumers’ points of view. Discussions ranged from personalized pricing that airlines are planning to establish in the coming future to best ways to display the raft of ancillary fees that airlines have created over the past half-a-decade.
From the consumers side, the discussion stuck to having airlines release all pricing data to all points of sale. That way any travel agent, whether they are OTAs, corporate or brick-and-mortar could inform their customers of the current flight-specific, passenger-specific fees that may have to be paid.
This would allow large corporations to budget for travel better. Knowing the full cost of travel and being able to project it out for the fiscal year would make planning much easier.
The release of data would help corporate accounting departments that wrestle with travel reimbursements identify travel charges that can be reimbursed according to company policies. Speeding up refunds and reducing paperwork for travelers would help the employees as well as the corporate accounting offices.
Releasing data would allow passengers to know how much their tickets would cost, including any fees that they choose to pay for services that passengers determine they want to purchase.
Releasing this data would allow the information technology sector to create new passenger/airline interfaces that would lead to new and better ways to sell airline tickets. By withholding this data content from Web developers, the airlines are slowing development of software that can make sense for consumers of the complex landscape of airline fees and associated exceptions.
Beta (testing) technology has already been developed by some airlines, independent software developers and the GDSs that would allow a family traveling from Chicago to Orlando to say, “We are traveling as a family of four; we will be carrying on four bags, checking two and want to sit together — how much will it cost?”
The resulting search would allow that family to compare the full cost of airline travel including baggage fees and needed seat reservation fees across all airlines that serve that route.
Ancillary fees make the total cost of travel complex and exceptions make the fees themselves complex as well.
With scores of fees now charged by airlines, it is rare that passengers can manage a trip without being surprised by a fee here and there. Even I was surprised when I went to curb check a “free” bag on JetBlue and discovered that there was a fee to use the curb check service. So, even those of us who are immersed in this debate can be caught unaware.
When changes in the published fees take place as passengers use airline credit cards that exempt some fees but not others; and frequent flier status provides another overlapping series of exceptions; and record locator numbers for group reservations add in another program of exceptions; it is no wonder that consumers are confused and surprised.
I am certain that even the airline personnel can be perplexed.
The perfect solution would be to eliminate these ancillary fees. However, many passengers, rightfully, ask the question, “If I am not using airline services, why should I pay extra for others who choose to use those services?” But, let’s face it, fees are here to stay. Airlines are addicted to these fees and they are a part of profit picture for every airline flying.
If fees are going to stay, airlines need to be open about these fees and publish these fees with all of their exceptions together with airfares so that software developers can devise ways to make the travel purchase simpler and more transparent for passengers.
That is the core of the consumer argument on the Hill as Congress and the Department of Transportation wrestles with what constitutes unfair and deceptive pricing.
The full release of ancillary fees (and their exceptions) will:
• absolve airlines of accusations of deceptive airfares and fees
• allow ancillary services to be sold throughout the airline sales channels
• make life easier for the airlines’ biggest corporate clients
• unleash a flurry of software development that will change the passenger/airline interface
• allow the free market to function by providing consumers comparison shopping across all airlines