What’s wrong with air travel?

by Christopher Elliott on August 8, 2012

What’s your biggest airline problem?

That’s a question I ask almost every day, and it’s coincidentally one that a new Transportation Department panel is trying to answer.

The Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, created by the latest Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill and established in May, is charged with reviewing current aviation consumer protection programs and recommending improvements, if needed. It has held one public meeting so far, with another scheduled for Tuesday, so it still has a long way to go before determining where passengers hurt the most.

Disclosure: I have a horse in this race. I co-founded the Consumer Travel Alliance and serve as its volunteer ombudsman. The group’s president, Charlie Leocha, is the consumer representative on the committee. Leocha maintains that the single biggest fixable problem is price transparency, or knowing how much your ticket will cost.

During presentations to the committee, other advocates for air travelers have made compelling cases for different causes, including making it easier to sue airlines and adopting tougher regulations concerning safety and tarmac delays.

If I’d made my own pitch, I’d have argued that air travelers are most frustrated by the impression that airlines seem to be able to make up their own rules with little oversight.

So who’s right?

To find out, I looked outside the Beltway, asking consumer advocates and service experts to name their top airline problem. If anyone knows where air travelers are hurting, they should.

Edward Hasbrouck, a San Francisco-based consumer advocate and author of “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World,” says that air travelers want to know what they’re buying. Airlines could do a far better job of disclosing so-called codeshare agreements and revealing what’s included in the price of a ticket as well as the ticket terms. Air carriers aren’t currently required to reveal any of those details on your ticket. “I think those are the big issues,” he says.

Mitch Lipka, who writes a consumer advocacy column for the Boston Globe, says that passengers are frustrated with new airline fees and charges that give the false impression that they’re spending less for their flights when they’re actually spending more.

Most recently, news that some airlines are reserving more aisle and window seats for passengers willing to pay a premium prompted angry complaints that families with small children wouldn’t be able to sit together without paying extra. “That seems to have irked a lot of people,” Lipka says.

Richard Laermer, a marketing expert and commentator for the public radio show “Marketplace,” says that air travelers are weary of being hammered by fees. “Fees for legroom, fees for seat reservations, fees for being first on board,” he says. “Worse, instead of passengers knowing what the price of a ticket covers, they’re growing more confused as airlines come up with new surcharges.” Laermer wants to see the end of “us vs. them.”

So, that’s three votes for price transparency.

Look a little closer, and you’ll understand why. These new fees and surcharges affect almost every passenger’s wallet in a direct, measurable way. A decade ago, the price of an airline ticket included checking two bags, confirming a seat, paying with a credit card. If you wanted to check an overweight bag or change your ticket, you paid a little more. Today, some tickets cover none of those things; they are, to use a term popular with the airlines, “unbundled.”

It’s not the unbundling itself that’s problematic, but the way it has been executed. With only one or two exceptions, airlines have quietly removed integral components of the ticket from the base price and then buried the disclosure on their Web site. That has allowed them to continue quoting the low fares that passengers want. It has also let them profit from the public’s assumption that those fares continue to be more or less inclusive, which they aren’t.

The money that airlines make from these extra fees is referred to as “ancillary” revenue, and the airline industry is awash in it today. In two years, worldwide ancillary airline revenue jumped 66 percent, to
$22.6 billion in 2011, according to a recent survey by IdeaWorks, an airline consulting company that specializes in ancillary revenue. The industry leader, United Airlines, collected $5.2 billion in ancillary fees last year.

But United is a big airline. The real ancillary revenue leaders are the so-called “low-fare” carriers, which pile on the extras. Spirit Airlines, for example, reaps about 33 percent of its revenue from fees, making it the world’s most aggressive air carrier when it comes to extras, IdeaWorks says.

Air travelers have plenty of problems. But this one — the issue of ticket price — keeps bubbling up in discussions.

The fix seems pretty easy: Require airlines to release all their data regarding fares and optional extras and to publish those fees everywhere they sell their tickets. At the moment, they’re not required to do so; current regulations say only that their fares must include mandatory fees and taxes. Obviously, it’s not enough. The optional fees are the ones that surprise consumers and hurt their wallets.

The advisory committee should recommend that the Transportation Department adopt a rule requiring airlines to put every component of their fares on the table, for every passenger to see, regardless of how and where they’re buying a ticket. That would quickly close a shameful chapter in the airline industry’s history, in which it deceived passengers into paying more for their tickets and earned billions based on its subterfuge.

No government should allow a business to lie to its customers, even if that business is a beloved airline.

 

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  • http://www.rajasthantours.net/rajasthan-tourism/ Rajasthan Tourism

    It is quite complicated to travel in Air plane because of sudden strike of pilots.

  • frank

    sudden???? Not in the US. There’s months, even years of negotiations, Mediation help from the government, a cooling off period, and strike votes from the membership. Labor strifes are commonly placed in the media. There’s no surprises here.

  • frank

    If I’d made my own pitch, I’d have argued that air travelers are most frustrated by the impression that airlines seem to be able to make up their own rules with little oversight.
    ==================================================
    You know, if you’re going to make (blanket) statements, at least, give examples. I SEE NONE.

  • mapsmith

    Actually, if you drill down a little deeper, the problem with air travel becomes more apparent.
    The Airlines consider the passengers as freight. As such they feel that by packing them in as much as possible they can maximize the profits.
    The words in the article, “air carriers” reflect this Cargo Mentality. The Airlines are just Carrying the passengers, they are not treating them as customers.
    Airlines need to become refocused as part of the Hospitality Industry not as just “Transportation”.
    I must admit, my travel is mainly leisure travel, but I often will pay slightly more to be on a plane with assigned seats, minimal comfort, and routes to where I actually want to go.
    I feel that the ancillary fees do nothing but reinforce the passenger as Baggage mentality of the Corporate Airlines. I am all for bringing back regulation of the Airlines if they do not want to treat me as a customer, instead of as cargo.

  • Frank

    Airlines need to become refocused as part of the Hospitality Industry not as just “Transportation”.
    ================================================
    you’re kidding, right? Who shaped that concept, some 20 years ago? I’ll tell you, it was the traveling public. They FLOCKED to airlines like Southwest, who offered a cheap ticket. To hell with first class, upgrades, meals, movies, magazines, pre-assigned seats, Airline clubs, Duty free, Business class, etc..etc..etc.
    No, the airline industry had to reshape it’s COSTS to keep offering those cheap tickets for decades now.

  • Frank

    The money that airlines make from these extra fees is referred to as “ancillary” revenue, and the airline industry is awash in it today. In two years, worldwide ancillary airline revenue jumped 66 percent, to
    $22.6 billion in 2011, according to a recent survey by IdeaWorks, an airline consulting company that specializes in ancillary revenue. The industry leader, United Airlines, collected $5.2 billion in ancillary fees last year.
    =================================================
    DO SOME HOMEWORK, CHRIS. There’s charts and articles out there that show who made what Revenues and who made how much ancillary FEES. Now TAKE AWAY THOSE FEES and tell everyone here who made a profit?

  • http://www.facebook.com/grady.peeler.5 Grady Peeler

    My complaints are more fundamental. I dislike being jammed into cramped seats with no elbow room, and made to feel like a sardine in a can. Secondly, I resent the indignity incumbent with transiting through TSA screening the delays, the hassles, and the occasional trite rudeness experienced. Finally, the idea that a plane can push away from the ramp, and then sit for hours on the runway just so the airline can claim it departed “on time” is about as disrespectful to passengers as it can get. For the last ten years, IF I can drive and get to my destination, I do that. If i have no other way to reasonably get somewhere, I suck it up and fly. I used to enjoy flying years ago, now it’s just another lousy chore, a couple notches below the need to do spring cleaning or some other disagreeable necessity.

  • DaveS

    I have no problem with fees. I can choose to pay them if I want the service they cover, or I can choose to save some money by foregoing that service. As long as the fee is for value added, it makes sense. I have seen this article (others that say the same thing) about price transparency again and again. I have a request – what would your proposal look like to the consumer? How would my ticket buying experience change? Can you provide a model?

  • mapsmith

    I’m sorry, but I do not like being treated as cargo. I am a CUSTOMER of the Airline. And I should be treated as a guest not just another ticket.
    Cheap Tickets are disappearing. From my local Airport, I always have to make a connection, and Southwest’s fares are usually slightly more than AA, Delta, USAir, or United. So Southwest’s cheap fares have slowly risen to where they are comparable to those airlines that do offer First Class, Assigned Seats, and the other benefits of being a customer. Now if they would only treat me as a customer.

  • Anonymous

    If you are looking online then you haven’t a clue on if Southwest is higher, only a travel agent can tell you this. And what I will tell you is that if one carrier has a fare in the market, all the others usually match it. What you are seeing is what is available, which is very different.

  • Anonymous

    Air travelers have plenty of problems. But this one — the issue of ticket price — keeps bubbling up in discussions.
    The fix seems pretty easy: Require airlines to release all their data regarding fares and optional extras and to publish those fees everywhere they sell their tickets. At the moment, they’re not required to do so; current regulations say only that their fares must include mandatory fees and taxes. Obviously, it’s not enough. The optional fees are the ones that surprise consumers and hurt their wallets.
    ****************************************************************
    We have the information in our GDS, right at our finger tips. GDS’ are regulated, online businesses are not. If you are ill equiped to find what you need online, call a travel agency.

  • FRANK

    Airline staff disappeared decades ago to keep airfares low. And, with alittle digging airfares are very affordable. You can find that for a few hundred bucks, you can fly most places in this country. Pull up a gas calculater and see how many it costs via car. It’s comparable. Airlines see hundreds of thousands of passengers per day, hard to be feel anything other then ………ONE OF THE MASSES.

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