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.

Maybe.

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 United.com 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 USAirways.com, 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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