Transportation Department wants airlines to reveal all fees and an airfare — or two

By | June 15th, 2010

Editor’s note: This is part eight in a series about the Transportation Department’s sweeping new airline passenger protection rules. You can read the entire document here (.DOC). Please take a moment to comment on these proposed rules at The future of air travel depends on it.

Last week, we started dissecting the government’s plans to tighten the way in which airlines advertise their fares. But if you continue reading the proposed rulemaking, you’ll discover the Transportation Department wants to go further.

How much further? Well, not only does the government want to require online agencies to display complete prices, but it also has a series of ideas about how a more complete fare might be displayed.

The reason for the rule is simple: People are confused. And they’re paying more than they thought. According to the regulatory analysis (PDF),

In many cases, these passengers would not be aware of the amounts of baggage fees and optional fees charged in the absence of notices on these sites, resulting in them incurring more charges for checked baggage and other optional services than if they had known about the additional costs for these items.

The rulemaking notes that there’s been an industry-wide trend (well documented on this site) to “unbundle” fares by charging fees for individual services provided in connection with air transportation. But new rules are needed to ensure adequate notice of such fees for optional services to consumers.

When booking air travel, consumers are not always made aware of the extra charges that a carrier may impose on them for additional services. Such charges may include services that traditionally have been included in the ticket price, such as the carriage of one or two checked bags, obtaining seat assignments in advance, in-flight entertainment, and in-flight food and beverage service.

The Airline Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO), which collects schedule and fare information from airlines for use in computerized reservation systems, has developed a list containing scores of ancillary charges in various categories. But the Transportation Department says passengers often don’t know what they are.

Related story:   Is this discount airline ticket a lost cause?

So what’s the fix?

1. Disclosure of baggage fee increases online. The department wants to require carriers that maintain a website accessible to the general public to prominently disclose on the homepage of such website any increase in the fee for passenger baggage or any change in the free baggage allowance for checked or carry-on bags.

2. Require disclosure of baggage allowances in confirmation. The government would also require carriers that issue e-ticket confirmations to passengers to include information regarding their free baggage allowance and/or the applicable fee for a carry-on bag or the first and second checked bag on the e-ticket confirmation. By providing this information to consumers on the e-ticket confirmation ― the document that confirms a passenger’s travel on the carrier ― passengers will be informed well before the flight date and arrival at the airport of the applicable baggage rules and charges.

3. Reveal all fees. Finally, it would require carriers that have a website accessible to the general public to disclose all fees for optional services to consumers through a prominent link on their homepage that leads directly to a listing of those fees. (Optional services include but are not limited to the cost of a carry-on bag, checking baggage, advance seat assignments, in-flight food and beverage service, in-flight entertainment, blankets, pillows, or other comfort items, and fees for seat upgrades.)