New rules for airline fees are a partial victory for travelers

If airfares confuse you as much as they confuse me, then I have some good news: Several new rules are going to make it easier to calculate the total cost of a ticket.


Starting Jan. 26, a new U.S. Transportation Department rule will require airlines to include all taxes and fees in their advertised fares. Other provisions of the rule — banning post-purchase price increases and allowing passengers to hold certain reservations without payment or to cancel them without penalty for 24 hours after booking — will take effect Jan. 24.
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Are new airline fee disclosure rules any good?

Search for a flight between Washington and Los Angeles on and you’ll find a notice posted high above the fares saying, “Additional baggage charges may apply.”

On the Delta Air Lines site, a query for flights from Baltimore to Memphis yields a similar warning — albeit in slightly smaller type — that “there may be additional fees for your carry-on/checked baggage.”

And on, a check for flights between Philadelphia and Phoenix reveals a disclaimer at the top of the screen: “Does not include taxes and optional fees. Checked baggage fees may apply.”

None of this may look like a big deal to you, but it is. Because there’s big money at stake. The domestic airlines raked in $3.3 billion in luggage fees last year, an increase of more than half a billion dollars over 2009.
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The truth about “hidden” airline fees

Just how hidden are the travel industry’s so-called hidden fees?

Fair question, given that the Transportation Department just weighed in on the topic. In late April, the agency issued a final ruling affecting how airfares are advertised and displayed. The move could have a ripple effect across the entire travel industry.

Are fees completely concealed, such as the $25 “early check-in” fee Julie Sturgeon had to pay recently when she arrived at an Ocala, Fla., hotel?

“No mention of the charge on the hotel’s site,” says Sturgeon, an Indianapolis-based travel agent. “When I checked in, the receptionist just said it was hotel policy.”

Or are they only partially hidden, such as the one Karen Kinnane had to shell out when she scored an upgrade to first class on her flight from Paris to Newark last month?
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Where’s the outrage?

I have just one question in the wake of the Transportation Department’s so-called “historic” rulemaking on airline passenger rights.

Why isn’t the airline industry upset?

The new regulations will force airlines to disclose their fees more clearly, increases denied boarding compensation, requires airlines to reimburse checked baggage fees when they lose your luggage, and bans post-purchase fare increases, among other things.

And the industry’s reaction? It thanked the government.
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How should airline fees be displayed?

So the federal government weighed in on airline fees earlier this week, and will soon require optional fees like baggage, meals and in-flight Wi-Fi, to be “prominently” disclosed on a carrier’s website.

But that may not be enough.

The Transportation Department has promised a second administrative rulemaking later this year to deal with the question of how, exactly, airlines should be required to show their fees.
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Weekend survey: Should peanuts be banned from planes?

Peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-related death, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Given that, is it responsible for airlines to continue serving their passengers peanuts on planes?

The Transportation Department is considering a rule that would prohibit peanuts from being served on commercial aircraft, even though it has partially backed off on the proposal, because it lacked the authority.

Some say it’s about time the government takes action to protect passengers with allergies. Others say it’s an infringement of their rights to eat whatever they want, whenever they want.
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Tarmac delay hall of shame: holiday edition

Anyone who thinks tarmac delays are dead was in for a little shock this week. Hundreds of flights were delayed in a series of powerful blizzards, and a few sat between the runway and the terminal for hours, waiting for the weather to clear.

The Transportation Department, which hasn’t fined a single airline for a tarmac delay since instituting its three-hour rule last spring, will almost certainly have to take some enforcement action this time. And, of course, there’s a big loophole: International flights remain exempt from the turnback rule.

More than two dozen international flights waited more than three hours from Monday to Wednesday to get to an open gate in New York, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The worst delay appears to be a Cathay Pacific flight from Bangkok that arrived Monday evening and got to a gate 12 hours later at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday.
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“No text message or phone call is worth the risk”

On a late winter afternoon, I was run off the New Jersey Turnpike by a delivery truck whose driver was talking on a cell phone.

No one was seriously injured in the collision, but I’ll never forget the loud “pop” of metal against glass and seeing the truck flip over and grind to a halt in a shower of sparks next to my badly-dented car.

When it happened 17 years ago, there were no laws against talking on a cellphone and driving. But thanks in no small part to a consumer-friendly Transportation Department — the most consumer-friendly ever, perhaps — there are. The latest is a proposed new safety regulation that would prohibit interstate commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating a commercial motor vehicle.
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The DOT hears our SOS

It turns out that all the negative things that happened to air travelers in 2010 – invasive body scans, multiplying fees, erupting volcanoes – were offset by at least one positive change: an increasingly passenger-friendly Transportation Department.

The federal government introduced new rules to help air travelers and enforced the regulations already on the books with a fervor unlike any administration in recent memory.

“Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is leading the first consumer-centered DOT in the history of commercial aviation,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel interests. “And he’s doing so in a very thoughtful and sophisticated manner.”

In the spring, the agency imposed a controversial rule that effectively limited tarmac delays to three hours. A series of proposed consumer protection initiatives that would, among other things, strengthen airlines’ customer service requirements, force carriers to display airfares and optional fees to allow better side-by-side price comparisons, and boost fines for overbooking were proposed over the summer and are expected to become finalized in early 2011. If approved, they could change the way Americans fly more than any government action since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.
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Great idea! US government to require rear-mounted video cameras in cars by 2014

I almost ran over my daughter.

It happened a few years ago, before she started walking, but the memory is still fresh in my mind. Somehow, she’d crawled out of the house, and I didn’t see her until I’d backed my car out of the garage. I’d come within inches of crushing her.

Let me tell you, there’s no worse feeling — none at all — than that sickening combination of relief and dread.

Thank God, I missed her! What if I hadn’t missed her?

Well, now the government wants to do something about the issue, and I, for one, think it’s about time. The Department of Transportation today proposed a new safety regulation that would help eliminate blind zones behind vehicles that can hide the presence of pedestrians, especially young children and the elderly.
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Travel agency whacked with $200,000 fine for offering “free” flights with Sandals vacations

The best things in life may be free, but that apparently doesn’t extend to the airfare on your all-inclusive vacation, at least according to the government.

The Transportation Department this morning fined Unique Vacations $200,000 for promoting “free” airfares in connection with its Sandals packages, when, in fact, customers would sometimes be required to pay airline fuel surcharges.

Here’s the consent order (PDF).

That’s illegal, says the government. Any advertising that states a price for air transportation or an air tour is considered to be an unfair or deceptive practice unless the price stated is the entire price to be paid by the customer to the air carrier or ticket agent for such air transportation, tour or tour component, according to the Transportation Department.
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