OK, here’s an easy question: What’s an airline ticket?
“What do we get?” asks HJ Pluhar, a retired manager from Alpharetta, Ga. “Is it transportation? Is it a seat? What does a ticket buy?”
That’s not so easy, on second thought.
The definition of an airfare is changing. Today’s tickets are routinely stripped of the basics, including checked luggage, food, drinks, reservations, the ability to make itinerary changes — even the ability to bring a carry-on bag.
By quietly rewriting what’s in a ticket, airlines have been able to legally rake in billions — a record $2.8 billion in ticket change fees last year alone — helping propel most of the industry to a profit. At the same time, air carriers can make the outrageous claim that their fares have never been lower, which is probably true if you accept their narrow definition of “ticket.”
But air travelers feel duped. In a recent poll, a vast majority of air travelers said once you factor in all the fees, flying costs more than they expected, with 55 percent saying it costs “somewhat” more and 44 percent complaining that it costs “a lot” more than they thought it would.
So perhaps a better question is, what should a ticket look like?
The airline industry is pushing to separate even more fees from its tickets, backing a proposed law in Congress called the Airfare Transparency Bill of 2014. It would allow them to advertise a ticket price, minus taxes and mandatory fees, making fares look like an unbelievable bargain.
Consumer advocates say that’s the last straw. Airlines have managed to turn the average ticket into an abomination that no air traveler from a generation ago would recognize, but omitting the taxes is a step too far.
The government appears to agree. Under a proposed Transportation Department rulemaking released last Wednesday, regulators would effectively define a ticket to include two checked bags, one carry-on item, and advance seat selection. The proposed rule will require all ticket agents and airlines to display these basics at the point in which fares are being compared.
But how about air travelers? In the survey, which was conducted on behalf of USA Today by the online polling company SurveyMonkey, passengers suggest the fare word-games have gone too far as well. Asked to rank the most important components of an airline ticket, 94 percent said they wanted the advertised fare to include all taxes and mandatory fees. It was closely followed by the ability to reserve a seat (91 percent) the ability to carry a bag (90 percent) and access to a bathroom (87 percent).
Separating seating option and baggage fees isn’t necessarily a terrible idea, according to Carol Margolis, author of the book “Business Travel Success.” The problem is what airlines have done with their fares once they’re unbundled. Instead of quoting a low, and unbookable, rate, airlines should develop technology that allows passengers to choose the amenities they want and then compare the same type of fares between carriers.