Air travel is full of surprises, some good, many not.
Steven Allen says he got a bad one recently when he called to change a United Airlines ticket from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. To move his return date from Oct. 25 to Oct. 27, the airline wanted him to pay another $300, nearly half the $686 airfare.
Allen, a college instructor in Berkeley, Calif., who like a lot of leisure travelers isn’t fully aware of all the fees that airlines now impose on passengers, says that the surcharge was unreasonable. “It’s disappointing,” he said.
Other passengers are also frustrated by airline fees — specifically, by the fact that fees are often poorly disclosed until it’s time to pay them. (United’s Web site indicates that a fee “may apply” for ticket changes, but it offers no details.)
The domestic airline industry as a whole is in the process of re-imagining its business model, moving away from one in which the price of a ticket covers the basic cost of air transportation to one in which optional fees account for much of its profits.
A new survey underscores air travelers’ dissatisfaction with the change. The poll, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a coalition of online travel agencies and electronic travel distribution companies, suggests that many air travelers are clueless about fees. It found that 94 percent of Americans who’d recently used an online travel company to book their travel said that all airline fee information should be available to travel agents and online travel Web sites, which isn’t the case now.
David Kelly, Open Allies’ executive director, called the results a “wake-up call” and said they prove that passengers want to know exactly what they’ll have to pay before they open their wallets. “The survey data demonstrates that consumers expect airlines to share fees in a transparent and purchasable format in all the channels where they sell their fares,” he added.
Open Allies didn’t order up the survey because it’s opposed to fees. On the contrary, it’s pushing the government to force airlines to disclose fees so that its members can sell the optional extras, sharing in the air carriers’ windfall.
Airlines say that the current rules are sufficient. Transportation Department regulations that took effect earlier this year require air carriers to prominently disclose all optional surcharges on their Web sites and to include any mandatory fees and taxes in quoted fares. “United’s fees are clearly disclosed online, in accordance with federal regulations,” says Charles Hobart, a United spokesman. He adds that United also discloses ticket change fees in the individual reservation, because those fees can vary.
It isn’t just ticket-change fees that irk travelers. Legacy airlines have added a variety of charges, for extras such as the first checked bag and seat reservations. Some discount carriers are more aggressive, charging fees for carry-on bags and for the “convenience” of booking through their Web sites.
Together, those fees generated more than $10 billion for the airline industry worldwide in 2011, according to a recent study by the airline consultancy firm IdeaWorks. For many airlines, the fees made the difference between a profit and a loss, and in a few instances, they might have made the difference between survival and liquidation.