Imagine if someone forced airlines, hotels and car rental companies to return every penny they took from you under questionable circumstances. The checked-bag fee, often poorly disclosed. The resort fee billed to your room, whether you used the “free” wireless and unlimited local phone calls or not. The license recovery fees that pay for your rental car’s plates — as if that were optional.
These extras, which most travelers call junk fees, aren’t just expensive annoyances. Vast sectors of the travel industry have made them a cornerstone of their business operations, with airlines leading the way down this ethically troublesome path.
It’s a practice the industry delicately calls “unbundling,” or removing often essential components of a product from the base price to make it look deceptively cheaper.
What if someone — a court or the government — required the travel industry to disgorge itself of all those ill-gotten gains, returning the money they sometimes improperly collected from you?
Travelers say they would love it, but parts of the travel industry might grind to a halt. Yes, that’s how dependent they’ve become on these often dishonest fees.
Becca Tabbutt says one airline broadsided her family with an additional $20-a-person fee for confirmed seats recently when they were flying from Philadelphia to Orlando. Many airlines charge for “premium” coach seats toward the front of the cabin or for exit-row seats, which offer additional leg room. In order to sit next to her kids, ages 4 and 1, Tabbutt, a stay-at-home mom from Parkesburg, Pa., forked over the extra money.
“But I inwardly seethed,” she adds.
When her family boarded the plane, she discovered it wasn’t full, and they could have easily sat together without paying extra.
“We felt even more duped,” she says. “We were led to believe that we had to pay to guarantee seats together.”
Tabbutt’s husband asked for an $80 refund, to no avail.
Industry apologists claim these fees are good because they’re optional, they lower the cost of travel for everyone else, and they ensure the industry’s profitability. That’s nonsense. Tell Tabbutt that sitting next to her toddler was “optional.” Only the savviest customers pay less, because they’ve figured out the system. Others unwillingly shell out more than they’ve budgeted, which directly translates into healthy profits.
Industry cheerleaders are right about only one thing: If it weren’t for these surcharges, many companies would simply not exist. Remove the $27.1 billion that the airline industry raked in last year from all the extras it sold us, for example, and you’d drain away its profits. No one really knows how dependent other parts of the travel business have grown on fees, since they’re not subject to the same reporting requirements.
What if someone like Tabbutt found a really good lawyer and sued her airline? To find out, I asked Tali Segal, another air traveler who has had to pay extra to sit next to her kids on a plane. She’s also a lawyer, and says proving fees are unethical wouldn’t be easy.
“When and if the fees are unfair and deceptive, the travel industry should not be gaining from this practice, and consumers should be refunded,” she says.
Other legal experts agree. Stephen Barth, a hotel industry attorney who runs the website HospitalityLawyer.com, says that for a class-action lawsuit against a large hotel company to succeed, travelers would have to demonstrate a material omission — in other words, failing to inform visitors of a resort fee, or that the marketing information provided was deceptive — to get a judgment in their favor.
Even if they do, he adds, “the damages can be quite small for an individual.” If you spent $25 a night for a fee that covered the use of a pool or exercise room, odds are you’d never secure a full refund.
It would be a long, difficult road, according to Thomas Dickerson, author of Travel Law. Airlines are regulated by the federal government, and any court challenge to such fees may be pre-empted by the rulings of the Federal Aviation Administration. Unhappy about fees on cruise ships? A court challenge may be governed by U.S. maritime law, which could pre-empt state consumer protection laws.
While a refund en masse is probably out of the question, you can still fight these junk fees on a case-by-case basis — and win. When Darryl Musick, an information technology specialist from Los Angeles, was hit with an unexpected $18-a-night resort fee at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort near Phoenix, he demanded to know why.
“They said it was for unlimited bottled water and local calls,” he remembers. “When I said I had my own phone and am happy to drink from the tap, they asked me to initial that I was refusing that service.”
Smarter travel executives must already know they’ve made a huge mistake by building their businesses on junk fees. They know their rhetoric rings hollow with the average customer, and they must know that at some point, they’ll be called to account for forcing their customers to pay extra for everything.
That day can’t come soon enough.