They’ve redefined an airline ticket – it’s time to fix that

Stuart Jenner/Shutterstock

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.

“That would allow airfares to be compared apples to apples,” she says.

The reality is far different, she adds. Her mother and aunts recently flew on Spirit Airlines and were “so nickel-and-dimed by fees that I’m sure they’ll never fly Spirit again.” Had their booking system included a menu system, they would have known what to expect.

“Customers are constantly being tricked,” agrees Steve Rushing, a Washington attorney. He’s also unhappy with Spirit Airlines, where customers, lured by its cheap fares, may not be aware that their standard carry-on bag may cost up to $100.

“I’ve known people who’ve showed up at the airport lacking a seat assignment, only to be charged additional fees,” he says. “The seat wasn’t included in the base price they paid.”

Spirit knows its passengers sometimes feel surprised by its fees, and as part of a brand overhaul recently pledged to clarify its policies before passengers arrive at the airport.

Telling customers what they mean by “ticket” would certainly be a good start. Today, you can’t easily determine what is — and isn’t — included in your fare unless you do a lot of homework. Peeling away essential features of a ticket may win high marks from investors and industry apologists, but passengers hate it. That should be enough for the Transportation Department to step in and put an end to this nonsense.

If only they would.

Which definition of airline ticket do you like better?

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How to keep airlines honest about their tickets

✓ Book a ticket from an airline that doesn’t aggressively “unbundle” its fares. For example, JetBlue and Southwest still include checked bags in their ticket prices.

✓ Let the Transportation Department know what you think of its proposed new airfare rules. Go to and search for rulemaking DOT-OST-2014-0056.

✓ Tell airlines what you think of their nickel and diming. By simply paying the fee and remaining quiet, you are quietly endorsing these fees.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • PsyGuy

    So why get the advance seat assignment, a seats a seat. Save the $99, and get an hour long massage when your flights over.

  • PsyGuy

    Luxury costs money. Use roads for example, their are private toll roads you can pay for and have a much less hectic commute.

  • DReinig

    Two checked bags should be included in the ticket price. Boarding today is significantly slower due to all the suitcases being brought on board and causes flight delays. Overhead space should be used for carry on items which are items too fragile to check. It also isn’t fair people who board towards the end of the line cannot carry on items which truly are carry on items, and fragile because all of the overheads are full of suitcases. They shouldn’t be forced to check those fragile items. And the size of the bags, and number of bags being carried on is ridiculous.

  • Michael__K

    It’s not technology. It’s standards.

    Do carriers provide a standard way to programmatically access their additional fees? Or do you have to wade through lines and lines of non-standardized text?

    If access to the fee types/categories and fee amounts were standardized, it would be easy to fetch and display.

    But why would carriers do that of their own volition if it’s more profitable when true cost is opaque.

  • Travelnut

    I think you hit it on the head, and this is basically what I was going to post. A ticket proves you paid airfare for a flight but it’s just that. A boarding pass is permission to board a particular flight. In order to pass through security, you need a boarding pass, not just a ticket. The boarding pass proves you’ve checked in and are clear to board (notwithstanding anything that could happen between the security point and boarding).

  • Travelnut

    In your FF proposal, is the seat selection fee built into the fare or are you proposing that families get the fee waived? If the latter, I very much disagree. Solo travelers shouldn’t be singled out (no pun intended) for a fee that others are not charged. Either charge a fee or don’t, but don’t charge it discriminately.

  • ploughmud

    if the seat is not included, I will just stand..oh, of course, the airline won’t let me stand…they make me sit for a fee…what if I refuse to pay an extra fee to sit, then where are we?
    what is wrong w this picture?

  • TonyA_says

    No waivers. Families don’t get anything for free.
    I can’t see any reason (legal or moral) why a family needs anything for free.

  • BMG4ME

    In fact I believe that by doing this, they have reduced the cost of air travel. I am seeing prices that are way lower than they have been for a long time for tickets to some places. Also I don’t think that making money is a crime, it seems to be OK when it’s us supporting our families.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I’m surprised nobody else mentioned it, but it’s amazing that people want a reserved seat by a slight margin over a toilet. This invites insight into why certain things should be included in a ticket price to benefit everyone.

    FA’s and other passengers and even the airline don’t want someone considering peeing in their pants to avoid going to the bathroom or because they don’t have a credit card on them to pay for it. If someone NEEDS to go the bathroom, I would want them to have a clear, and inviting, path for them to get there. Wouldn’t you? NOBODY should want a pay toilet on a multi-hour long flight…

    What people should be charged for on all flights is alcohol. I love free drinks as much as the next guy but the number one problem FA’s have on flights are people who can’t handle their liquor and the less drunks up in the air, the better.

    A free checked bag encourages people to travel as light as possible to the gate and free up time at TSA checkpoints (which cost everyone money) and saves time at boarding (which saves the airlines money). Although Spirit Airlines is the anti-Christ, I have to give them credit for charging MORE for a carryon bag than for a checked one. They have it right: Carryons cost them more in time and money than checked bags.

    Water? Again, something that should be “free” for everyone’s sake. You don’t want someone getting dehydrated and passing out because they didn’t want to pay 5 bucks for a small bottle of water. (Tip: I wash my hands with bottled water in the bathroom. I’d rather wash my hands in the toilet than the water that comes out of the faucet.)

    Small snacks? Again, you want people to have enough energy to remain somewhat alert and coherent. You don’t want people getting starved and low on blood sugar. Hand out sugar cubes if necessary.

    In theory, I don’t mind bringing this stuff on my own (except the toilet, of course) except that the TSA had made that difficult due to security restrictions. In the old days, I brought my own soda, snacks and water if I knew that service was going to be minimal.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    It’s useful to remind everyone that “dereguation” did NOT regulate that seat assignments had to be included or checked bags, etc.

    Indirectly, as routes and prices were regulated this meant that airlines competed on service and this drove them to offer more “freebies” to lure people away from competing airlines for the same route and price or to even consider going to a different airport to take advantage of freebies.

    The consequences of prices being set by regulators rather than market competition was the risk that some routes would be underpriced or overpriced and this would either arbitrarily put airlines out of business, or drive massive profits their way.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    CCF, could you elaborate on what you mean by that claim that BC and FC travel isn’t “commoditized” at all?

    The prices for first and business class vary by airline and also there are ways to get into the different cabins based upon elite status. It’s safe to say that most travelers in those cabins didn’t pay for a full priced ticket but rather got upgraded somehow through status or miles. Another trick is that upgrading a full class walk-up fare to business is often trivial and this is a trick that business travelers often use to sneak into the business cabin. They get the full class fare ticket and use miles to upgrade or qualify as elites. It’s the “Y class” trick.

    There is a difference between the first class and business class “cabin” so to speak. The FC lounge is much better and they often have special treatment to get on the plane. What many don’t know is that First Class travelers often board LAST and through a hidden backroute from the lounge to avoid being seen. This way movie stars and other celebrities can avoid being recognized. It’s not advertised, but FA’s often overlook FC passengers breaking the rules and leaving their seat belts off and their pets roaming the cabin. These aren’t big perks IMO but for the ultra wealthy who don’t want to bother with flying private, it’s worth it to them. They consider it a good savings to pay $5000 for a FC seat as compared to $20K for private. Also, FC has a special TSA line to expedite them going through. Some people even make it a game to sneak into the first class TSA screener line. Shhhh!

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I don’t think travel sucks. Keeping in mind how 911 messed things up, other than that, things are quite nice.

    I book my ticket online and set up my reservation. I get a free checked bag with my CC or I fly Jetblue. I know which security zones have the shortest lines at Dulles and usually am through in about a half hour at most. Using lounge passes from my CC, I enjoy a nice comfy chair at the lounge and catch up on reading or email. I walk to the gate and seeing the gate lice run around like mad, I wait until the last minute to board. The overheads are full but no problem, I only brought a small bag and jacket which I put under my seat. I checked in 24 hours in advance and since many people don’t know how to use that feature, I have a great reserved seat without paying for it. I bring some snacks with me for the flight and have a nice small meal at the airport. I have a bottle filled with water that I brought empty through security and filled up at the water fountain.

    This is not really all that bad.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    CCF, I’m sure you’re too well educated to watch this show (I sometimes tune in on the few days off I stay at home sick, etc) but on The Price Is Right or “Let’s Make A Deal”, they have A New Car! available to be won and we hear:

    “Yes, this NEW Cordova with a SPACIOUS interior comes with FRONT disc brakes, a standard transmission, and roll windows! The interior is luxurious polyester and comes with a cabin with fan air and 4 windows!”

    It’s the same kind of car advertised by car lots trying to get people in for holiday sales. A cripple car most people don’t want. I bought one for my wife’s first car though :-) (OK, she has A/C, but not power windows!)

    Sigh, I miss my old little Ford Aspire because I LIKED the rack and pinion steering. For parallel parking, I had to use my muscles but the rest of the time, it worked BETTER than power steering.

  • bodega3

    To each their own.

  • bodega3

    FYI, most celebrities who fly FC do so because it is required by SAG if they are traveling for work over ‘x’ amount of miles (use to be 10,000, not sure what it currently is) and the company that is hiring them, has to pay the bill. Yes, they do get special treatment in many ways. We have seen a famous singer be allowed to sit in his blacked out SUV in the no parking zone with his body guard standing next to the car, while another employee checked everyone in.

  • bodega3

    Actually, over all, fares are well up in 2014. So no, all this isn’t lowering fares. Never has. Competition lowers fares.

  • ctporter

    I want to know what the fare (ticket) plus taxes are. All else is something I want to be able to choose once I pick an specific routing. If I am savvy enough to use the internet to purchase a trip, I should be savvy enough to compare costs between airlines. Time of day for departure, and time of arrival at my destination is important to me, as well as the duration of the flight, length of connection times, luggage policies, seat assignment policies, meal options, etc. All of these go into my considerations in addition to the cost of a flight when selecting which routing to take. If someone is going to DIY their travel, they must do the work of a TA. They have to do the research, they have to compare, consider, and arrive at the best trip that meets their needs based on more than just costs. Because I do fly often, and because I end up on one airline more than others due to where I am going to and where I am departing from I am not concerned about luggage, so the issues then become the flying times and seat selection.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Google: “SAG require first class travel” and you’ll find it. Here’s the deal:

    “When a performer is required to fly at the request of the Producer,
    all flights shall be business class when available and, if not
    available, first class. There is a major exception to this rule. Coach
    class* air travel is acceptable in the following circumstances:
    For domestic flights that are less than 1,000 air miles when the flight is non-stop;
    For non-stop flights between LA and Vancouver;
    For non-stop flights that are less than 1,000 miles between the US and Vancouver or between the US and Toronto;
    If a substantial number of the company is being transported;
    If 6 or more performers travel together in the same class on the same flight; or
    For auditions and interviews.”

  • PolishKnightUSA

    You know, we’re in an era of stagflation when everything but wages are going up: housing, healthcare, gasoline, and meat. Inflation is often understated by government figures so basically nearly everything rises faster than inflation.

  • bodega3


  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I wasn’t contrasting FC with BC, but I was lumping FC and BC together as a premium product and saying that premium products vary across airlines and even plane types within the same airline and route. Thus premium class passengers will actually choose a particular airline over another. By contrast coach passengers tend not to perceive a difference between airlines and buy solely on price. Sorry if that wasn’t articulated clearly on my end.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Oh, I quite agree. That’s where Chris and I have the fundamental difference. He has an idea of how travel should be. I, on the other hand, believe, that it’s quite appropriate to incentivize people to engage in more efficient behaviors, e.g. pack less and not check a bag. That saves the airlines money. And basic economic theory would agree that since you engage in money saving behavior, you should pay less.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lol. I’m still a regular guy; just one with the bad habit of using 5 words when one will do just fine. Good thing I don’t have to pay by the word.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Ok, I think I get your point better. In many cases, couch and premium cabins, route trumps price and should be considered. My wife is biased against Reagan airport in DC and insists upon Dulles. Sometimes, I can find good fares out of Reagan. I then have to put my foot down and say we’ll go out of Reagan due to price and/or route. A lot of people are also unaware of the small regional airports available such as Burbank out of the L.A. region, for example. (And John Wayne is the MOST fun to fly out of!)

    You’re right that a FC or BC cabin often is meaningless especially for short hauls and small aircraft. I’ll sit in the overhead compartment if the flight is only an hour. Knowing elite flyers, they love the lie flat chairs and exceptional service some of them provide. At that level, it’s quite competitive and this is where the FF programs are so important: They’re used by the airlines to lock the elites in and try to capture their business. It’s hard for them to take their elite status elsewhere, but that’s changed now by “matching status” programs to lure them away from each other. Ironically, as the airlines have altered their FF programs, they’ve undermined elite customer loyalty.

    One of the challenges of the price paradigm is that with sales and pricing, it’s not even close enough to matter. If I see a Jetblue ticket for $300 for IAD-FLL and Delta for $200, I’ll consider taking Delta even if I have to pay for the first bag (or fight with the gate lice for overhead space.) That’s a huge difference. But… my wife will insist upon Jetblue and I’ll agree with her. Jetblue runs a direct non-stop to FLL so I can avoid potential transfer hassles and they’re a lot simpler. So I’ll pay the 50 percent premium but granted, I’m the exception rather than the rule.

  • Helio

    so we can get off the plane, restore circulation, and return to our original places (thanks Mark Kelling!).

    Sorry, I lost this tip. How do you do to “reserve” the seats on WN during a stop? Thanks!

  • PolishKnightUSA

    And I sympathize with the airlines in their crude, and misguided, attempt to make fares more “transparent” and quote their fares without the taxes. The point is that the taxes have skyrocketed since the good old “regulated” days of airfare. And fuel. Remember the bad old days in 2007 when it was under 2 bucks a gallon? That factor alone means that airfares should double in price. I really sympathize with the airlines getting nailed for problems aren’t of their own doing. If it wasn’t for this nickel and diming, airfares would be a lot worse. Sadly, another way they cut costs was to bust their unions. This has resulted in a lot of low paid, surly employees taking out their frustrations on uppity flyers by kicking them off the flight. It’s not flying that stinks but rather the whole economy.

    Of course, I should also mention that the CEO’s of the legacy airlines are way overpaid. That’s why I want to fly Aeroflot with those great hammer and sickle designs and orange uniforms. Only in Sheremeteyevo can you find Vodka cheaper than water!

  • BMG4ME

    In my travels fares have been down, although it wouldn’t be surprising for fares to be up since fuel costs are up too.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I’m sorry, this is geeky but it has to be quoted:

    From Monty Python:
    Milton :We use choicest juicy chunks of fresh Cornish ram’s
    bladder, emptied, steamed, flavoured with sesame seeds, whipped into a fondue and garnished with lark’s vomit.

    Praline: Larks vomit?

    Milton: Correct.

    Praline: Well it don’t say nothing about that here.

    Milton: Oh yes it does, on the bottom of the box, after monosodium glutamate.

    Praline: (looking) Wel I hardly think this is good enough.
    I think it’s be more appropriate if the box bore a great red label
    warning lark’s vomit.

    Milton: Our sales would plummet!

  • bodega3

    Thanks. I haven’t done travel for SAG members for several years now.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Funny thing. I read on WSJ that Spirit charges $34 RT to book online compared to the airport. Don’t know if they changed that. In other words, Spirit charges MORE to book at the airport and LESS to print out the boarding pass online. At least last time I heard (I don’t fly Spirit. :-)

    Which begs the question: Why charge or give discounts for the exact same behavior?

    The answer is that most people tend to book online or through the phone and not at the airport while many will tend to print out their boarding pass at the airport. Spirit then hits the passengers with hidden fees (or extra charges respectively) for normal behavior. In neither case, is it based upon “saving” the company money. Heck, charging more for exit rows doesn’t “save” the company money. They simply take advantage of a demand asset (exit row space.)

    Spirit’s business model is like a lot of companies: They have loss leaders or low prices for the wary or those willing to sleep in front of a store on Thanksgiving to try to score a deal on Black Friday and suckers. Those who don’t read all the fine print (unlike you.)

  • MarkKelling

    Almost as good as Crunchy Frog!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I heard the FAs mention this as we were landing, that we could keep our same seats and stuff on the plane and walk around if we were staying on the same plane after the stop. Or, we could choose a better seat. This is how it works: Continuing passengers stay on the plane while the other folks get off. Then the continuing passengers can get off, and they get priority to get back on. I checked a couple of sites now that I’m back home and those sites say the same thing, so I must have heard correctly!

    Some planes don’t stay on the ground very long, so the amount of stretching and moving may be limited.

  • Helio

    Thanks Jeanne!

  • Bill___A

    I read that the proposal is to include “two checked bags, one carry on bag”. Most airlines include one carry one bag and one personal item. Are these proposals being made by people who actually don’t fly?
    The airlines STILL aren’t enforcing the carryon bag sizes. I was just on a flight where several people brought on huge bags, and two full size carry on bags instead of one personal item and one carry on.
    As these airlines cram more seats into the same space on the plane, I expect the overhead storage space isn’t improving at all.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    There’s a classic SNL skit that addresses this: “It’ll fit!!!!”

    tinyurl dot com/mtxbhfk

    They’re called gate lice. They fight to get on the place first using any means, hook or crook, and then pack the overhead bins. Then the rest of us who aren’t in the mob get stuck having to gate check our bags and wait a half hour for them after arrival.

  • Bill___A

    Thanks for the note, I’ll watch that video once I VPN into the USA so I can access the content! The biscuit bunnies (AKA Flight attendants) need to pay more heed. Someone hauling two obviously oversized bags in should be stopped.

  • innchfromnj

    All travel sites and airline websites should be required by federal law with no ambiguity to display the FULL fare including all taxes and fees. Also, all baggage fees as well as seat fees.
    The practice of hiding things from consumers must end.

  • innchfromnj

    This is sort of amusing.
    Since the inception of e-ticketing and 24 hour check in, I have NEVER not printed my own boarding pass.

  • Marcin Jeske

    That assumes you have a printer available… if you are on the road… a printer is hard to find… and you have to beg hotels, or wait in lines at Kinkos. Driving to the airport after camping? Bears don’t own computers. Returning from a cruise?

  • Marcin Jeske

    I am not sure if it is the government’s hidden agenda to collect the appropriate taxes on transport. We can discuss what the appropriate level of taxation on air travel is (FAA and airports are not free), but that does not excuse airlines using accounting tricks to avoid taxes.

    Would you be fine with hotels offering free rooms with the payment of a Overnight Property Occupation fee? Lodging tax on free is $0. (I have already seen “Energy Fees” and “Safe Fees”.)

    In states with sales tax, could businesses avoid it by shifting costs to Shopping Fees or Cart Rental Fees or some other category not incurring sales tax?

    We all turn a blind eye to it because it has become common industry practice in a race to the bottom ($1 base fare sound great in an ad), but it is as manipulative and deceptive as those mail-order clubs where “free” items are contingent on buying later overpriced items, Las Vegas hotels where an ultra-low room rate is eclipsed by a massive resort fee (and the pool is closed anyway, and the gym costs extra), and bulk mail offers of free flights and resort stays (after “fees” and high-pressure sales seminars.

    Anything we can do to push airlines back to clear, simple, and reasonable fares is a good thing.