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 Regulationroom.org. 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.
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.)
And when the government says tell everyone, it really means everyone.
[We are] also considering requiring that carriers make all the information that must be made directly available to consumers via proposed section 399.85 available to global distributions systems (GDS) in which they participate in an up-to-date fashion and useful format.
This would ensure that the information is readily available to both Internet and “brick and mortar” travel agencies and ticket agents so that it can be passed on to the many consumers who use their services to compare air transportation offers and make purchases.
Here’s where the rule gets a little fuzzy. The department is considering asking airlines and online agents to display two fares. That’s right — two.
The first one would be the full fare, including all mandatory charges, as well as that full fare plus the cost of baggage charges that traditionally have been included in the price of the ticket, if these prices differ. The second fare would remove the baggage. It wants comments on the ideas.
Should such a requirement for a second price, if adopted, be limited to the full fare plus the cost of baggage charges? Should the Department require carriers to include in the second price all services that traditionally have been included in the price of the ticket such as obtaining seat assignments in advance?
Air travelers will tell you they just want the “all in” price when they’re quoted a fare.
The other day, one of my fellow consumer advocates referred to unbundling as “pizza” pricing, and suggested the airlines think of it in the same way. If they do, I wonder how they’d feel if they were quoted one price for a pizza, paid for it, got home, opened the box, and found the pizza store owner standing there asking for more money for the toppings they thought were included.
Simply put, the flying public is done with the dishonesty of “pizza” pricing, a la carte pricing and the industry’s dishonest pursuit of ancillary revenues. Telling it to quote two fares is no solution. Air travelers just want one price — the one they’re going to pay.
The Rulemaking Series
I’ve written this series of posts in order to help you understand the Transportation Department’s proposed rules and offer the most informed feedback during its commenting period. Please take a moment to read them and then tell the government what you think at Regulationroom.org.
If you have any feedback on this series, please send me an email. And thanks for reading.
(Photo: J aako/Flickr Creative Commons)